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Henin-Hardenne Snaps Serena's Slam Streak, Sets Up Belgian Battle For French Open Final

Photo By Paul Zimmer By Richard Pagliaro

Six points separated Serena Williams from her fifth consecutive Grand Slam final today. As the defending Roland Garros champion stepped up to serve holding a 4-2 lead in the third set of her compelling clash with Justine Henin-Hardenne, a singles semifinal showdown suddenly got very crowded.

Phillipe Chatrier Court seats 15,059 fans and today most of them took a vocal stand against Williams.

Jeering Williams' correct questioning of inaccurate line calls and cheering her errors, the French fans forced their collective will on this match. What was once the soundtrack to a dramatic duel became an active player in the plot and the star of so many Grand Slam shows felt the ramifications resoundingly reverberate in the result.

In capturing four consecutive Grand Slam crowns, Williams withstood the challenge of the world's best players. But the world's best player could not stand up to a stadium. Unnerved by the hostile howls echoing in her ears, Williams concentration cracked, her level of play dipped and she could not break the sound barrier before her.

The fourth-seeded Henin-Hardenne hung tough, rode the roars and showed her Grand Slam guts and grit, staging a resilient rally to reach her first Roland Garros final with a stirring 6-2, 4-6, 7-5 victory.

The comeback win sets up an all-Belgian battle for the Roland Garros title as Henin-Hardenne meets second-seeded compatriot Kim Clijsters in Saturday's final. The 2001 runner-up, Clijsters advanced to her second French Open final by rallying from a 4-5 first-set deficit to win nine of the final 10 games in scoring a 7-5, 6-1 win over unseeded Russian Nadia Petrova.

Two years ago, Henin-Hardenne suffered a heart-breaking semifinal setback to Clijsters on the same red clay stage after building a 6-2, 4-2 lead only to watch it dissipate as she succumbed to nerves and Clijsters' consistent play in bowing 2-6, 7-5, 6-3.

The memories of the moment may well have flashed through Henin-Hardenne's mind when she was two points from facing a 2-5 deficit in the decisive set today. Her seemingly slender, 5-foot-5 3/4 and 126-pound frame has grown considerably stronger through the grueling, sweat-soaked workouts Henin-Hardenne endured in the offseason with trainer Pat Etcheberry beneath the Florida sun.

Physically and mentally empowered by her experiences, Henin-Hardenne's strength of spirit was a crucial component of her triumph today.

It was Henin-Hardenne's second straight victory over Williams and snapped the five-time Grand Slam champion's 33-match winning streak in Slams. Williams' last loss in Grand Slam came in the 2001 U.S. Open final when her older sister Venus beat her, 6-2, 6-4.

The reception she received clearly stung Williams, who did not make eye contact with Henin-Hardenne in a hurried post-match handshake and though she offered a subtle smile and waved as she walked off in defeat, Williams had to be hurting from the hostile reception she received.

The crowd became a factor in the seventh game of the decisive set. Williams stopped play twice to circle the spots where Henin-Hardenne's shot had landed beyond the lines. Both chair umpire Jorge Dias and television replays confirmed Williams was correct and though she rightfully won both points she clearly lost favor with a French crowd that expressed its displeasure through loud jeers and whistles. The crowd's emotion escalated a bit when Williams, who missed a first serve as Henin-Hardenne held up her hand to call for time, asked Dias if she had the right to a first serve. She didn't get a first set and didn't win a point the rest of the game.

Had Williams been able to hold serve at 30-0 she would have seized a 5-2 lead and may well have silenced the crowd, but she tightened up, committed three consecutive errors to face break point and Henin-Hardenne capitalized by blasting a backhand winner down the line to break for 3-4.

A fired-up Henin-Hardenne pumped her fist and further fueled the ferocity of her fight in the next game as she held for 4-4.

The 21-year-old Williams was able to block out the boos in a similar circumstance two years ago when she overcame jeers from an Indian Wells crowd to beat Clijsters in the final, but that negative reception largely occurred at the beginning of the match whereas the feeding frenzy from French fans took place near the crucial climax today. Serena has surpassed Venus in the rankings and on in court success, but the youngest of five sisters is a sensitive soul who now found herself facing elements out of her control.

Trying to drown out the crowd Williams opened a 40-15 lead in the ninth game only to dissolve in another series of errors. She saved one break point, but on the second break point of the game Williams had a brain lapse and hit an ill-advised drop shot that sat up almost at mid court that a charging Henin-Hardenne easily swatted into the open court to take a 5-4 lead.

Seeking to close, Henin-Hardenne buckled beneath the burden of pressure, double-faulted twice and lost serve at love.

It was Williams' turn to tighten in the 11th game as she delivered a double fault to go down 0-30 and a forehand wide to face double-break point at 15-40. Williams fought off the first with an inside-out forehand winner that barely landed inside the line then saved the second with a trip to the net the forced an error. At deuce, Williams charged the net again and was in position to put away a routine forehand volley, but instead she popped a passive volley into the middle of the court and Henin-Hardenne, who had run down virtually every Williams drop shot all day, deposited an easy pass into the open court. Henin-Hardenne took a 6-5 lead when a Williams backhand landed well wide.

The service break seemed to break the defending champion's spirit.

Earning a second chance to seal the match, the battling Belgian did not falter. Connecting on three consecutive first serves, she quickly claimed a 40-0 lead and capped one of the greatest victories of her career when Williams' backhand flew wide.

A match that degenerated into derision directed at Williams began brilliantly for Henin-Hardenne, who played beautiful tennis for the first set and a half.

It is a rare occurrence to see the world No. 1 forced to show survival skills, but that's exactly what Williams had to do after Henin-Hardenne produced a clay-court clinic to take the first set, 6-2. Alternating angles with body blows directed right at Williams, Henin-Hardenne created court openings for herself, while handcuffing Williams by centering shots that hugged at the hips of Williams, who was forced to step back to hit them.

Technically and tactically, Henin-Hardenne played near-flawless tennis, but Williams came back in the second set and shrieked "Com on!" when Henin-Hardenne flailed a forehand wide to hand Williams a service break and a 5-3 lead. Two games later, Williams won the second set, 6-4, to even the match and force a final set.

The subtext to this story is that Williams has come under criticism from some players — including Henin-Hardenne — for not giving enough credit to opponents who beat her. Williams prefers to point to her losses as as the product of her own errors rather than her opponent's success.

In suffering her third loss of the season and first Grand Slam setback in two years, Williams became the seventh straight top-seeded woman to fail to win the French Open as the sounds of a stadium overcame the vision of another Grand Slam championship.

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