PARIS — It started in the very first game, when a few fans applauded an errant forehand. By the final set, thousands loudly cheered missed serves.
And when Serena Williams abruptly shook hands without speaking a word to Justine Henin-Hardenne, the woman who had just ended her Grand Slam winning streak, full-throated boos echoed from the upper deck.
Rattled by the rough crowd and unable to solve a gritty opponent, Williams lost to Henin-Hardenne 6-2, 4-6, 7-5 yesterday at the French Open, ending her bid for a fifth straight major title. Williams had won 33 straight Grand Slam matches dating to last year at Roland Garros, the sixth-longest streak in history.
“It was just a tough crowd out there today. Really tough. Story of my life,” Williams said.
Moments later, discussing the spectators, she choked up and wiped away tears.
“It’s a little difficult. All my life, I’ve had to fight. So it’s just another fight,” Williams said. “It definitely does make it harder, but I’ve just got to be able to be a little stronger next time.”
Instead of a fifth straight all-Williams Grand Slam final — Serena’s sister Venus lost in the fourth round — Henin-Hardenne will play No.2 Kim Clijsters in the first all-Belgian major final. Neither owns a Grand Slam title. Clijsters, the 2001 French Open runner-up, beat Nadia Petrova 7-5, 6-1, taking nine of the last 10 games.
“It’s good that you have a different final. It’s good to see different players. It’s good for women’s tennis,” said Henin-Hardenne, who lost to Venus in the 2001 Wimbledon final. “Maybe it’s time to give someone else a chance.”
She earned her shot by racing to an early lead, then hanging in when the pressure appeared to get to both players and the crowd really became a factor.
With Williams ahead 3-2 in the final set, Henin-Hardenne’s forehand sailed long — but there was no call. Instead of continuing the point, Williams yelled, “Out!” She beckoned chair umpire Jorge Dias, who agreed.
Two more errors by Henin-Hardenne, plus a forehand winner by Williams, gave the defending champion a service break and a 4-2 lead.
The next game, Henin-Hardenne hit another shot Williams thought was out. Again, Dias concurred after checking the mark on the clay.
Up 30-0, Williams sent her first serve into the net, and some in the crowd cheered. She got her second serve in but lost the point on a forehand into the net.
Williams then faulted — to resounding cheers — but told Dias she should be allowed to redo the serve because Henin-Hardenne raised a hand to call time. After a discussion, Dias told Williams it would stand as a fault; she wound up losing the point on one of several poor drop shots in the match.
“I’m not upset with her,” Williams said, then paused. “Actually, OK, I was a little disappointed with her, because … to start lying and fabricating, it’s not fair. I understand that people want to win these days, but …”
Two more first-serve faults were greeted by cheering. A forehand into the net by Williams, followed by a forehand winner down the line by Henin-Hardenne, let the Belgian break back to 4-3.
“It gets rather annoying. You’re not serving well anyway, and then you miss your first serve, and it’s like everybody’s booing and screaming,” Williams said.
Her mother, Oracene Price, was more blunt: “The crowd showed a lack of class and total ignorance — or they just don’t know tennis and the etiquette of tennis.”
Even Henin-Hardenne acknowledged that the crowd’s behavior “sometimes could be a little bit too much.”
Before the last set’s eighth game, center court sounded like a choral hall, with alternating chants of “Seh-reh-nah!” and “Juice-teen!” Henin-Hardenne held to 4-4, then broke to 5-4. But serving for the match, she double-faulted twice.
During her Grand Slam run, Williams always was so composed, even on those rare occasions that she trailed, including facing match points and a hostile crowd before overcoming Clijsters in the Australian Open semifinals.
But at 5-5 in the third set yesterday, Williams faltered. She missed consecutive backhands to let Henin-Hardenne break to 6-5, then lost the last game at love. When Williams shanked a backhand return wide, she quickly walked around the net to awkwardly grab Henin-Hardenne’s hand. No kisses on the cheek for this opponent, as Williams had done after a match last week.
Maybe she just isn’t used to losing.
Aside from the Grand Slam streak, Williams is 31-3 overall in 2003, and Henin-Hardenne is responsible for two of the defeats, the first at Charleston, S.C., in April. Williams played down talk of a calendar year Grand Slam after completing a self-styled “Serena Slam” in Australia, but it was on her mind.
“I definitely wanted to try. I mean, I know some things are impossible, but I always set my goals really high,” she said. “There’s always next year, though.”
In her five straight-set victories to reach the French semifinals, Williams dropped just 19 games. It took all of 10 minutes for Henin-Hardenne to make clear this would not be another lopsided affair.
The Belgian — who will replace Venus at No.3 in the rankings — broke Williams twice in taking a 3-0 edge, helped by eight unforced errors. Each was greeted with some clapping, and when the players walked off for the first changeover, dozens of black-red-and-yellow Belgian flags flapped in the top tier.
“From the first point, they were all over her to do well,” Williams said. “And so it was just a little hard to get in the rhythm. Once they get started, it’s kind of hard to make them stop.”
Said Price: “She knew this job was dangerous when she took it.”