- The Washington Times - Thursday, July 1, 2004

WIMBLEDON, England — Jennifer Capriati will always have Paris. Rome, too. But grass is different than sun-baked clay, and Serena Williams on the green turf of Centre Court is different still.

In a lopsided renewal of what passes for the top rivalry in women’s tennis, Williams reclaimed the upper hand in stunning, sudden fashion by squashing Capriati 6-1, 6-1 yesterday in the Wimbledon quarterfinals.

With the victory, Williams atoned for a pair of earlier clay court losses to Capriati, the most recent at the French Open. She moves on to a semifinal meeting with France’s Amelie Mauresmo, who defeated Argentina’s Paola Suarez 6-0, 5-7, 6-1.

Williams is attempting to become the first woman since Steffi Graf to win three straight Wimbledon titles.

“I was very surprised,” Williams said of a match that took 45 minutes. “I think I was very focused coming out here on what I wanted to do. I have some goals out there.”

Billed as the best thing going in the women’s game besides fetching Russian semifinalist Maria Sharapova, the Williams-Capriati contest instead played out like a celebrity pro-am laugher — though, in fairness to Elton John, the tennis-loving troubadour probably would have offered more resistance than the head-scratchingly feeble Capriati.

Andy Roddick, who played in a later men’s quarterfinal, was asked if he saw the match.

“No, I was in the bathroom,” Roddick replied. “I came out and it was done.”

First serves into the tape. Second serves into Williams’ wheelhouse. Step-slow, slump-shouldered groundstrokes that sailed wide and long. From the third game on, Capriati looked nothing like the player who outhit and outhustled Williams to claim springtime victories at Rome and Roland Garros. Worse still, Capriati didn’t even resemble the player who previously had dropped eight straight matches to the tournament’s top seed.

Seven of those, including a meeting in last year’s Wimbledon quarters, went a full three sets. This time Capriati hinted that a flurry of media hype affected her concentration.

“When everyone’s talking about it, it’s very hard to just go out there and completely focus on tennis,” she said. “I can’t walk around with earplugs in my ears. You’ve got to do your best not to think about it, because it does add some tension. Maybe if [the press] didn’t talk about it so much, it would have been a better match.”

Williams said she doesn’t read the papers. Perhaps she has the right idea. Midway through the first set, Capriati sat in her changeover chair, fumbling with her headband.

Three times she attempted to tie it; three times it slipped from her fingers. She gave up and put on a cap. Williams won the next two games, closing the set when Capriati smacked a backhand long. It was that sort of afternoon.

“I don’t think I really had much of a chance to get into the match and play,” Capriati said. “I was just feeling so much pressure from her coming off the baseline, the serve. Her game plan was to tee off on everything, and she was on. I just couldn’t even get the rallies going.”

Time and again, Williams pummeled Capriati’s tepid second serve, taking quick command of points when not launching outright winners. She broke Capriati six times in a row — the first on an electric forehand, the last when Capriati batted a halfhearted backhand wide.

On match point, Williams laid out for a diving volley, never mind her 5-1 lead. Afterward, she smiled and waved to the crowd, stopping to sign autographs. Capriati trudged past, cap pulled low, an extra pair of shoes in her right hand.

If Williams had broken a sweat, the beads weren’t visible beneath her headband. Roland Garros seemed ages ago.

“At the French, I just made a ton of errors,” Williams said. “I couldn’t keep the ball in play. My game just broke down. I just wasn’t the same player. It was just a totally different time. I’m just feeling better in general.”

Wimbledon has served as a tonic for Williams, who ripped a tournament-record 126 mph serve against France’s Tatiana Golovin and hasn’t dropped more than four games in any of her five matches.

Williams injured her left knee following last year’s tournament and subsequently endured an eight-month layoff, falling out of the WTA Tour top 10 for the first time in five years.

“It’s been a really hard 12 months for me,” Williams said. “And coming back to Wimbledon, I just really, really am feeling good for the first time since I’ve been back. I’m bending for balls, I’m not having any pain, I’m not even worried about feeling pain. I’m running without having any doubt in my mind. That’s been a big plus for me.”

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