| Serena had apparently left France traumatised
Replay time. Except now there should be no heckling and booing. The last time Serena Williams and Justine Henin-Hardenne met there were rivers of American tears and allegations of racism against the French Open crowd in Paris. Williams set up the semi-final rematch Tuesday by defeating Jennifer Capriati with great balls of fire.
The Slazengers needed hosing down after Williams dispatched Capriati 2-6, 6-2, 6-3 on Centre Court. Capriati’s scintillating performance in the opening set was like a bee sting to the defending champion. Never make a superior player angry, is an old nugget of playing sport.
If the Williams versus Henin-Hardenne semi-final was being staged at Roland Garros, the demons might rampage back into Serena’s head. But this is rule-bound London: An English garden party at which a trilling mobile phone tends to be the most flagrant breach of etiquette.
Williams ended her conquest of Capriati blowing kisses to the crowd and will not be turned into the panto villain. The Roland Garros audience had their own reasons for jeering her in May during her French Open semi-final against ‘HH’ — and nobody can be certain that racism was one of the motives.
Henin-Hardenne is a French-speaking Belgian who brought a large following across the border. American commentators pointed out, meanwhile, that Williams had sneered at French pacifism in an interview back in March. Asked about anti-Gallic feeling in the United States, Williams answered in a mock French accent that would have earned her a role in Allo Allo (she has ambitions to be a thespian): “Well, we don’t want to play in the war. We want to make clothes. We don’t want the war.”
Not clever. Nor was making her own line calls in that match, which ended her run of four consecutive triumphs in the major tournaments. For her to complete the non-calendar Grand Slam rendered her a minor Tiger Woods. She wept through the post-match press conference and left France apparently traumatised.
“Deep down, it hurts,” she said in the run-up to Wimbledon fortnight. A grudge match, then' No, but Williams will be breathing fire in her mission to settle the score.
“I think we’re professional enough to do this and there is no problem for us,” Henin-Hardenne said last night after her own quarter final win. “Half an hour ago we talked in the locker-room. We’re professional and we’re colleagues. It’s better if we have this kind of relationship. There are no negative feelings on my part at all.” Check this claim again Thursday.
For non-specialists, the Williams-Capriati showdown was a match to revive old doubts about the Sister Act. However churlish this sounds, and however thunderous the rallies, there is a cold and unedifying brutality about Serena’s relentless ball-pummelling. There is too much grunting effort in there for it to be pretty. She scientifically pounds the furthest recesses of the court. For length and power she is the ultimate sadist.
But the question is whether length and power alone can stop you dozing off in front of the box.
Tuesday’s match was 40 minutes old before Williams won a point with what you might call a subtle or foxy stroke. The net-hopping dink with which she ended a ferocious rally in the fourth game of the second set was like a voice from a vanished age. It reminded us what we were missing when the ball was fizzing and pinging from end to end.
A whole generation are growing up on this stuff. If you told them about the beautiful plink-plonk of summers gone by they would assume you served under Captain Mainwaring in the Home Guard.
The currency of modern sport is power. And, yet, there is something missing. Not for her, but for us. Call it entertainment, if you like. The 31-stroke rally towards the end of the third set was compelling in its way. There was never the sense, though, that it could develop into anything other than a trial of strength, an exercise in angled ball-hammering and cross-court scurrying.
Afterwards Capriati said this: “I think she had to play her best tennis to raise her game in order to beat me. I don’t think I gave her the match. She really had to elevate her game. With the way I played, I don’t think anyone else could have beaten me. No one else serves like that. She served a couple at 119mph. That’s why she’s No 1. It’s how big her serve is that gets her out of a lot of trouble and wins matches for her. This was the closest I’ve got to beating her.” This was hardly a paean to a great champion.
Capriati has power, but there is art there as well. All she could do, she said, was “look forward to the next game, just try again. That’s what it’s all about.” Echoes of Tim Henman. For Williams, echoes of Paris, which could be bad news for Henin-Hardenne.