By DOUGLAS ROBSON in Paris
Specially contribute to WTAFANS.COM
PARIS - Say au revoir to Le Streak Serena. Serena Williams, the reigning champion of all four Grand Slam tournaments, saw her winning ways come to a screeching halt Thursday against plucky Belgian Justine Henin-Hardenne in the semifinals of the French Open.
With the help of a raucously anti-Williams crowd, the fourth-seeded Henin-Hardenne clawed out a 6-2, 4-6, 7-5 to reach her first Roland Garros final.
Henin-Hardenne's streak-stopping win sets up an all-Belgian Grand Slam Saturday -- the first in tennis history -- when she takes on compatriot Kim Clijsters. The No. 2 seed held off an early challenge from unseeded Nadia Petrova of Russia, 7-5, 6-1, in the dayâ€s other semifinal.
"Itâ€s probably one of the most beautiful wins of my career, for sure, because I had to fight a lot today," 20-year-old Henin-Hardenne said.
Considering Williams's mauling of Frenchwoman Amelie Mauresmo two days ago, a loss to anyone short of Wonder Woman seemed unlikely. The 21-year-old American had dropped only 19 games and no sets in her previous five matches at Roland Garros. Indeed, Serenaâ€s 33-match winning streak in majors -- sixth best in the Open Era -- began on the terre battue just over a year ago.
But on this day, the world No. 1 at times looked lost, dumping numerous ill-timed drop shots into the net, spraying 75 unforced errors and sliding unnaturally as if she had grown up playing on California hard courts -- which she did.
The loss clearly stung and the bitterly disappointed Williams showed a vulnerable side the public has rarely seen in the last year as she pulverized the competition. "It definitely does make it harder," Williams said of the crowd after the match, her eyes welling with tears, "but I just got to be able to be a little stronger next time." She added: "I'm not used to crying."
Coming into Paris, players were crying for help in how to beat Williams, who had lost only twice all year. But they knew their best shot at dethroning Serena was on clay, which neutralizes her superior power.
"It's very hard to play Serena on every surface," said Henin-Hardenne, who will move to number three next week regardless of how she fares in the final. "But it's true that for me itâ€s little bit easier to play her on clay court because her power is not the same.So I believe maybe a little bit more in my chances on clay court."
That mentality was evident early on. A more relaxed Henin-Hardenne came out moving well and keeping the normally dominating Williams off balance, building a 3-0 lead, which she rode to take the first set.
In the second set, both players held four times and then traded three consecutive breaks. But the defending champ was mentally stronger, smacking a backhand winner to seal the set.
The stadium fireworks began in the third, when an already pro-Henin-Hardenne audience became hostile towards Williams, who upset the center-court crowd by questioning a series of calls and stopping once mid-point when she thought a ball was out.
It was. But the cheering seemed to derail Williams, who saw a 4-2 lead narrow when she dropped her serve at love. At 4-4, Henin-Hardenne broke and served for the match, but this time her nerves got the best of her, double faulting twice and dropping her serve at love for 5-5. But the 5-foot-5 Belgian steadied herself, and helped by a couple of backhand errors by Williams, broke back again. This time she played with poise, winning her first match point when Williams sailed a backhand return wide.
A fragile and sniffling Serena said after the match that the crowd had indeed affected her, even though she claimed to be in a "bubble" on court when she dispatched Mauresmo in front of the partisan crowd in the quarterfinals.
"Yeah, it was a bit harder today because she started out really strong," Williams said. "And from the first point, they (the crowd) were all over her to do well. And so I think, you know, it was just a little hard to get in the rhythm. Once they got started, itâ€s kind of hard to make them stop."
Even Henin-Hardenne was uncomfortable with the crowd, which clapped at times when Williams made mistakes or missed first serves and booed her when she hastily left the court. "Yeah, sometimes it could be a little bit too much," she said.
The loss means Serena cannot duplicate what only three other women have accomplished: winning all four majors in one calendar year. Only Maureen Connolly (1953), Margaret Smith Court (1970) and Steffi Graf (1988) have done so.
Against the hard-serving and rangy Petrova, Clijsters struggled early, her powerful forehand often landing long. But after saving a set point with a drop shot that clipped the net and fell over for a winner against the 76th-ranked Russian -- who beat both Monica Seles and Jennifer Capriati en route to her first Grand Slam semifinal -- Clijsters found her range and rolled through the match in 70 minutes.
"I was really happy to see that one get over," the 19-year-old Clijsters said of her set-saving drop shot.
Next up: The Belgium Slam. Henin-Hardenne and Clijsters, who come from different parts of Belgium and have known and competed against one another since they were juniors, have met 12 times before, with Clijsters holding a 7-5 edge. However, Henin-Hardenne won their last encounter, saving three match points against the second-ranked Clijsters on her way to the title in Berlin on clay last month.
Both have come up empty in previous Slam finals. Clijsters beat Henin-Hardenne in the 2001 French Open semifinals, and was two points from victory before bowing to Jennifer Capriati. Henin-Hardenne lost in the finals of Wimbledon in 2001 to Venus Williams.
Both players know each other well, are deft tacticians and move well on clay. But Clijsters, who tends to hold up better in big matches than the sometimes jangly (but increasingly less so) Henin-Hardenne, is the slight favorite.
On the larger tennis landscape, whether this week's results represent a changing of the guard after four consecutive all-Williams finals is probably a stretch. While Venus has seemed unfocused of late, and wounded even after her fourth-round exit here, the two Americans are least at home on clay. They now have a collective goal to shoot for: Another major trophy on the Williams family mantle piece -- and a more favorable surface from which to reach for it.