- The Washington Times - Saturday, September 11, 2004

NEW YORK — Fighting back from a disastrous start and winning the 49-stroke point of the tournament along the way, Jennifer Capriati served for the match against Elena Dementieva in their U.S. Open semifinal yesterday.

Right where Capriati wanted to be, right? Nyet!

Up big but battling a leg injury, Lindsay Davenport just had to hold off first-time major semifinalist Svetlana Kuznet-sova for a handful of games. Surely, Davenport could rely on her experience and powerful strokes to extend a 22-match winning streak and keep alive her bid for the No.1 ranking, right? Nyet!

Capriati came oh-so-close yet again at Flushing Meadows before falling to 0-4 in Open semifinals, succumbing to the soft-as-cotton-candy serves and hard-nosed grit of an ailing Dementieva 6-0, 2-6, 7-6 (5).

Davenport, limping on a bad hip, devolved from near perfection in the first set and a 3-0 lead in the third to a 1-6, 6-2, 6-4 loss to Kuznetsova.

By beating the crowd favorites in topsy-turvy matches, No.6 Dementieva and No.9 Kuznetsova became the first Russian women to reach a U.S. Open final. As of four months ago, no Russian woman ever won a Grand Slam title; now the country will have its third straight major champion.

Anastasia Myskina beat Dementieva for the French Open title, and Maria Sharapova won Wimbledon.

“I guess they’re just pretty hungry to play, and there’s just so many of them,” Capriati said. “And there’s also a few good ones — I mean, all of them are good.”

It’s the first time since 1988 that no Americans will be in the Open’s singles finals. In the men’s semifinals this afternoon, top-ranked Roger Federer of Switzerland plays No.5 Tim Henman of Britain, and 2001 U.S. Open champion Lleyton Hewitt of Australia faces No.28 Joachim Johansson of Sweden, who upset defending champ Andy Roddick in the quarterfinals.

Federer is bidding to become the first man since Mats Wilander in 1988 to win three majors in a year. There’s no such dominant figure in women’s tennis these days — indeed, Amelie Mauresmo will be No.1 in the rankings without having won a Slam in her career — but there is a dominant nation.

“It really surprises me as much as it surprises you,” said Dementieva, so wiped out after outlasting Capriati that she pulled out of the doubles semifinals. “There are a lot of us, and we play very good. But to see another all-Russian final in a Grand Slam, that’s amazing. It’s unbelievable to me.”

And probably to the executives at CBS, which is paying millions for the rights to air the weekend’s matches, including the women’s prime-time final tonight.

For the first time in the Open era, which dates to 1968, none of the four top-seeded women made the semis in New York. That seemed to clear the way for Davenport and Capriati — both 28, former No.1s, and owners of three Slams each — to get to the title match.

After all, Kuznetsova, 19, was best known until now as Martina Navratilova’s former doubles partner. Dementieva, 22, was in just her third major semifinal, injured her left groin during the week, needed IV fluids after beating Mauresmo in the fourth round, and her infamously slow serves (around 60 mph) solicit laughter from spectators.

But, as Dementieva’s coach, Olga Morazova, put it: “At the end, Elena was tougher.”

Morazova lost to Chris Evert in the 1974 French Open and Wimbledon finals, the last time a Russian woman played for a Slam title until the recent run.

Capriati is building a forgettable body of work in U.S. Open semifinals. She’s now served for a spot in the final a total of five times dating to 1991, always getting broken. Last year, she served for it twice against Justine Henin-Hardenne, and 10 times was two points from victory. This time, she finally converted her eighth break chance over two games to get to 6-5 in the third set. But Capriati double-faulted to send it to a tiebreaker, which Dementieva ended with a backhand winner down the line.

At least Capriati made it competitive. She was absolutely awful in the 17-minute first set, losing 24 of 29 points and hitting zero winners. Early in the second set, she let her frustration show, motioning at her family in the guest box, hammering a ball against the wall, asking the chair umpire to turn off her mike so it wouldn’t pick up the loud sound of the wind.

When someone barked out advice from the stands, Capriati snapped: “Shut up! I know what to do!”

Apparently, she did, and the third set had its great moments and its ridiculous ones — including a combined eight breaks of serve in 12 games. But on the set’s third point, the players engaged in a 49-stroke exchange that featured fantastic defense by Capriati. When it finally ended with Dementieva missing an easy overhead, Capriati dropped her racket and raised her arms, while the Russian bent over, hands on knees. While both stopped to catch their breath, the fans responded with a standing ovation.

Two games later, Capriati — whose victory over Serena Williams in the quarterfinals was marked by officiating errors — got flustered when chair umpire Leann White mistakenly announced the score at 30-all. White corrected herself, saying Dementieva led 40-15, and Capriati shouted, “You can’t change it now!” White responded, and Capriati fired off an expletive, drawing a warning.

Davenport hurt her left hip while practicing in the morning, and while she was superb in the first set, she had a hitch in her step late in the second. She left the court to get the area rewrapped and won the first three games of the third set. Then she dropped six of the last seven games. Davenport just watched a backhand by Kuznetsova fly by to get broken to 5-4, then allowed the Russian to serve it out at love.

At Wimbledon, Davenport talked about retiring at season’s end. She didn’t lose again until yesterday, then said she’s not sure about her future.

“I’m just going to see how I feel in the next few weeks, and how my body feels, and mentally how I feel, and what my motivation is,” Davenport said. “It would be tough to walk away knowing that, ‘Oh, I still could have won a Slam,’ or ‘I was still at the top.’ That probably makes it a little bit more challenging of a decision.’”

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