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Simply heroic: Justine outlasts agonized Jennifer in classic

By Alix Ramsay
Special to *******************

Susan Mullane/
Camerawork, USA, Inc.
FROM THE US OPEN – It is hard to imagine who will be remembered most and for what. Justine Henin-Hardenne for her physical courage, her impenetrable mental shield and her Lazarus-like recovery or Jennifer Capriati for one of the worst chokes of her career – or anyone else's for that matter.

It had been a grim week in Flushing Meadows but, just when we least expected it, the US Open turned up a real gem of a match. With the clock heading for 1 am on Saturday morning, Henin-Hardenne staggered into the final after three hours of emotion, of pain and, sometimes, of truly spectacular tennis. She beat Capriati 4-6, 7-5, 7-6. In the end she did it on one leg and, the minute it was over, she was wheeled off to the medics for an IV drip and as much rest as she could manage.

"I'm so tired," she said. "I gave everything. I was cramping, especially on my serve. I did my best and it was very close. I could lose this match so I am very happy."

Henin-Hardenne was simply a heroic. Since Kim Clijsters – who she'll face in Saturday's final – accused of her faking an injury in the Carlsbad final last month, she's been afraid to call for medical aid, thinking that the crowd and maybe other players would come down on her. So she massaged her own cramped thigh during the match and scrapped her way into the final.

"A lot of people have been talking about me very badly the last few weeks," Henin-Hardenne said. "It was a big mistake not to call the trainer because I needed one. I'm never doing it again."

Countless times Henin-Hardenne could have lost it but Capriati let her off the hook. In the absence of the Williams sisters, this was supposed to the chance for the other hopefuls to get their shot at the title. Given such an opportunity, Capriati fell apart. Twice she served for the match and twice she froze. The shots that had been pounding her opponent into submission were suddenly flying wide of the mark or into the net. This was her moment and she blew it. And she knew it.

"It hurts," she said simply. "It's very disappointing but what can I do? It's just the way it went. A couple of times I was in the position to win the match, I was almost at the finish line, but I think I played pretty consistently throughout the match. You have to give her credit, the way she was feeling, for just staying out and trying to win. I definitely had the match in my hands, it was my match to win. I beat myself.

Susan Mullane/Camerawork, USA, Inc.
"When I came off the court I felt like the whole world was coming down on me and my heart was being ripped out. How I choose to look at it now is that it was a great match. I gave my all and she did to but I didn't win. It's a positive thing for me and for the future. It is just a match and I'm only human."

She had fought her way back onto level terms in the first set after the Belgian and Roland Garros champion had raced out of the traps like a startled whippet. As she did so, she got the crowd involved, whipping them up into a frenzy with a succession of fist pumps and gestures that would have made Jimmy Connors proud. This was her stage, these were her people and now, surely, this was to be route to the final. But no.

It is not often that a player will admit to faults and it is exceeding rare that they admit to weakness but Capriati was in no mood to follow the herd. She was open, truthful and, without actually using the word choke, she told the world that she choked.

"It was getting overwhelming out there," she said. "I started looking at her, now I've got to close out this match for sure. She's cramping, the crowd was so into it. I guess I just lost complete focus. I still tried but my shots weren't the same. I couldn't believe what was going on out there. You can get such joy in winning but there is the other side of it, too. A true champion, it's how they handle it and come through it. I still thrive on it, this kind of match. I do want to come back and try it again."

Throughout all of this Kim Clijsters was sitting back in Manhattan with her feet up. She had the easiest of rides into the final, skipping past a flat-footed and sluggish Lindsay Davenport 6-2, 6-3. It gives her a third chance to claim the her first Grand Slam trophy having lost at the French Open this year and back in 2001.

So far Clijsters has dropped 28 games on her way to the final round. Cannon fodder and seeds alike have been dispatched with consummate ease and all the ground work has been done. But that is the easy bit. Now she has to batten down the mental hatches and forget that this is her best chance to win. Henin-Hardenne will be exhausted mentally and physically while she should be a fresh as a daisy. And that thought may be her undoing.

Earlier this year she choked to Serena Williams in the Australian Open semifinals, losing from 5-1 up in the final set. Then there was the clearing of the throat and the fraying of the nerves against Venus Williams at Wimbledon. Cruising through the first set, she was unfortunately given time to think during an untimely rain delay and that was the end of her challenge. As for the French Open final against Henin-Hardenne, it is best to draw a veil over that one.

"She's very accurate on her ground strokes and a great mover," Davenport said. "She also very consistent at important times. People judge your career on how many slams titles you have. So far she is having to deflect a lot of criticism about being the one with no Slams. But I think her time is going to come. Will it come tomorrow? Maybe. I think she's got a great chance."

Then again, Capriati thought she had a great chance, too.
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