- The Washington Times - Wednesday, June 2, 2004

PARIS — Venus Williams peered through the rain drops at the Day-Glo yellow letters and numbers dotting the black scoreboard.

First came an unwanted reminder: She was losing her French Open quarterfinal. Then, like an airport’s schedule board, the digits flipped, revealing more bad news: Her sister Serena, seeded second, was gone already, beaten 6-3, 2-6, 6-3 by Jennifer Capriati across the grounds on center court.

Not much later, No.4 Venus swatted a soggy, clay-caked ball wide for the last of 43 unforced errors, allowing Anastasia Myskina of Russia to wrap up a 6-3, 6-4 upset.

This anyone-can-beat-anyone French Open simply keeps producing surprises. Never before had the Williams sisters been eliminated in the same round at a tournament; it happened in a span of 28 minutes yesterday.

“We’re going to pack our bags and leave,” said Venus, whose 19-match winning streak ended. “There’s nothing left for us here anymore. We’re going home.”

Clearly, the injuries that forced the siblings off the tour for the last half of 2003 and parts of this year hampered them — in their preparation, in their performance and in another vital way.

They have let slip the intimidation factor they built by being ranked Nos.1-2, meeting in Slam final after Slam final and divvying up eight of 11 major titles from Wimbledon in 2000 through the Australian Open in 2003.

And, as their mother pointed out, with each miscue (Serena had 45 unforced errors to Capriati’s 24), the siblings’ self-belief can wane.

“When you start making a lot of errors, you make opponents feel that, ‘OK, OK, I’ve got a chance now,’ and their confidence goes up,” Oracene Price said after shuffling between show courts to catch parts of each daughter’s match. “With my girls, when they do what they do, they can lose their confidence, too. It goes both ways.”

Their body language was anything but positive yesterday. In her third game, Serena spiked her racket after getting broken by shanking a swinging volley five feet long. Venus bent over and let out a yelp after putting a backhand return into the net to waste one of three break points in her last game.

“Now, of course, everybody believes at least that they can fight with them,” Myskina said. Soon, though, she sounded a word of caution, saying Venus and Serena will “be back. I mean, they were the best — they can be the best again.”

That certainly goes for Capriati, who lost eight straight matches to Serena until beating her at the Italian Open last month.

“I have to give myself credit for not giving up,” the 2001 French Open champion said. “You have to take it like a fighter. You’re going to get punched, and you’ve got to take the blows and just keep coming back.”

Seeded No.7 after a poor start to the season partly because of a bad back, Capriati now assumes the role of favorite. The other three women still around owned a combined total of one previous major semifinal appearance: No.6 Myskina, No.9 Elena Dementieva of Russia and No.14 Paola Suarez of Argentina, a 6-1, 6-3 winner against Maria Sharapova.

With Dementieva, a 2000 U.S. Open semifinalist, defeating No.3 Amelie Mauresmo of France 6-4, 6-3, it’s the first time in the Open era (which began in 1968) that three of a major’s top four seeded women lost on the same day.

Keeping with that theme, Tim Henman — never past the fourth round at a major other than Wimbledon — defeated Juan Ignacio Chela 6-2, 6-4, 6-4 to set up a semifinal against No.3 Guillermo Coria, who beat 1998 champion Carlos Moya 7-5, 7-6 (3), 6-3.

Perhaps the performance by the serve-and-volleying Henman, the first Englishman since 1963 in the French Open semifinals, can be chalked up to the familiar sights of rain and green tarps. Capriati and Serena waited out a 75-minute delay, then suspensions in the first two sets.

The temperature was 60, and both walked out wearing Starburst-bright sweat pants and jackets zipped to the chin (Capriati’s cherry red, Serena’s a shade of grape). Capriati strained her right thigh in the fourth round, and it was heavily wrapped yesterday. In the second game, she saved a break point by sprinting to scoop a drop shot, then limped back to the baseline.

Otherwise, she showed no ill effects. Capriati made brilliant returns, including two winners off first serves to end the opening set; traded power during rallies; and raced to keep balls in play. There were some terrific exchanges and some sloppiness — “not the highest quality,” Capriati acknowledged.

On one riveting, 16-stroke point, Williams lunged for a backhand and left Capriati a sitter she slapped into the net. Williams raised her arms in a V, lost her footing, and momentum carried her into the courtside geraniums. That gave Williams three break points, and a backhand winner gave her a 3-0 edge in a second set she dominated.

But Capriati never folded, showing the resolve that won three majors in 2001-02 but failed as six of her last seven Slam losses went three sets. She credits new coach Heinz Gunthardt, who used to work with Steffi Graf, with instilling confidence.

“I tried not to listen to those voices that sometimes come in my head, you know, the negative ones,” said Capriati, 1-1 this year against semifinal foe Myskina.

“It’s about time, finally, that I won one of these matches.”

As for the Williams sisters, Venus was asked how long it will take for them to return to the top.

“Next event,” she replied. “We’re both competitors more than anything. … So we won’t just sit back and accept a loss.”

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