At 21-years-old, Justin Henin took over from Serena Williams as the best player in the world. Henin won the French Open at a canter, easily defeating Kim Clijsters in the final after getting the better of Williams in a controversial semifinal. She followed that by reaching the last four at Wimbledon and came into the 2003 US Open in good form having won the Canadian Open. Henin had also won the German Open on the clay (then a Tier I tournament) prior to Roland Garros.
Jennifer Capriati, meanwhile, was embarking on her annual quest to win the US Open. She always played in New York as if nothing else mattered which is understandable as she originally hailed from New York, making the US Open her home Slam in every sense of the word.
Henin made it through to the semifinals after defeating Dinara Safina in the fourth round and Anastasia Myskina in the quarterfinal. Capriati defeated Elena Dementieva in the fourth round and Francesca Schiavone in the quarterfinal. The semifinal between the two was fittingly scheduled for a Friday night – what better setting could there be for big-time tennis?
The match started as it would go on. Capriati served first and immediately had to fend off two break points. That was followed by an equally intriguing first service game for Henin, with the Belgian eventually holding after a great rally which saw Capriati come to the net, be forced back to the baseline and ultimately lose the point.
Capriati was broken soon afterwards, coming into the net at inopportune moments and paying the price. At that stage, Henin was making the difference with incredible running forehands down the line and cross-court. Not to mention her famous backhand down the line.
However, Capriati’s determination was intense and she started to do some damage with her own penetrating forehands. She clawed her way back to 4-4 having been 1-4 down. Henin did have a game point to go 5-3 up only for a bad line call to force the point to be replayed, with Henin eventually losing the game.
That questionable call may have been a reflection of Capriati whipping the crowd into an absolute frenzy and openly questioning line calls regularly. It is hard to imagine that this bad sportsmanship did not influence the officials at critical moments.
Not that Capriati was too concerned about that. She was trying to win a tennis match by whatever means necessary and it didn’t seem like she much cared about how it looked. The situation was getting to Henin, however. She dropped serve again to allow Capriati to take the first set 6-4.
Capriati, at the age of 27, was surely too experienced to think she had the match under control and Henin broke at the start of the second set showing she still meant business. The see-sawing nature of the match and the quality of both returners meant no break was secure, however, and the American got back on terms quickly enough.
Capriati continued pushing hard, and at 4-3 got what she surely thought would be the decisive break to serve for the match up 6-4 5-3.
This is where Capriati will always have nightmares about her US Open journey. In the 2002 quarterfinal, Capriati served for the match against Amelie Mauresmo and lost in three sets. This time Capriati started off tentatively – there was a distinct drop off in the pace of her shots – and the moment clearly got to her. Taking advantage, Henin was able to break to keep the match alive, going to net twice in a row successfully.
The contrast with another American who loved the US Open – Andre Agassi – is as important as it is obvious. When Agassi was in a tight spot on his serve, he invariably did two things. The first was to hit the ball harder than before. The second was to try to finish big points as soon as possible, often by hitting down the line and rushing the net. Capriati, however, appeared to have no trusted strategy to rely on when it mattered at the US Open.
Henin being the champion she is, clearly picked up on this and not only held to go 5-5 but immediately broke to go 6-5 up. To further demonstrate her champion’s mindset, Henin served out the second set to love. It doesn’t get more emphatic than that.
Unsurprisingly, the crowd were loving the dramatic match and it was far from finished. Capriati came again, breaking Henin early in the decider and marching out to a 4-1 lead. It looked almost certain that Capriati would get it done and book her place in the final. Especially when serving at 2-5 down, Henin began to show the first signs of cramping. But Henin was able to tough it after multiple deuces out and ask Capriati the question.
And, just as in the second set, Capriati was not able to answer that question. Instead she was broken yet again when serving for the match, despite having the crowd behind her. It was Henin who took the initiative with great shots, forcing the issue, whilst Capriati played too tentatively when it mattered. On break point, Capriati should have come in after forcing Henin into a defensive position but stayed back and lost out.
It was perhaps fitting that this match was decided by a final-set tiebreak. At the time, the US Open was the only Major to decide matches by tiebreak, adding a unique element to the drama in New York (the Australian Open and Wimbledon have since introduced deciding-set tiebreaks).
Capriati seemed to lose heart and Henin raced to a 6-2 lead which also punctured the atmosphere in the partisan stadium. Capriati was able to save two match points but not a third, Henin sealing her place in the final after a three-hour marathon. Whilst cramping quite badly in the latter stages.
Capriati surely sees this match as a big missed opportunity, having served for the match twice. Both players hit some incredible shots throughout and showed tremendous athleticism, but it seems that Henin’s fight and willingness to go for it when the scoreline was tight made her the worthy winner.
The statistics here show how close the match was. Both players won 127 points each. Both players broken serve seven times. Henin won 60% of her first serves and Capriati 58%. It was a great match and definitely a match to be enjoyed years afterwards.
Henin would go on to win the final easily against the top seed Kim Clijsters. Capriati would get to another US Open semifinal in 2004. But the tale of the tape that day was all too familiar: up against Elena Dementieva, Capriati served for the match twice but eventually lost in a third-set tie break.
Embed from Getty Images