What befell Jennifer Capriati here in the semi-finals of the United States Open was hard to take, even for a graduate of Heartbreak High. Having been within two points of reaching her first home Grand Slam final nine times, the 27-year-old American could hardly believe it when the slight but tenacious Justine Henin-Hardenne advanced to an all-Belgian finale against Kim Clijsters.
The partisan spectators were as stunned as Capriati when three hours of the some of the most exciting women's tennis seen here for years ended in anti-climax for all but the Belgians and the neutrals. But even the biased observers were able to swallow their disappointment at the result and rise to Henin, a competitor with more bottle than Stella Artois
Henin, the second seed, prevailed, 4-6 7-5 7-6, after Capriati had served for the match at 5-3 in the second set and again at 5-3 in the third set. "I just need to sleep," the dehydrated Belgian said before leaving the court and being put on an IV drip.
Capriati went off in search of a place to shed tears of disappointment. "That's what the locker room's for," she said later, managing a sad smile as she re-emerged to face the world's tennis media, a trial she has grown accustomed to during a career that has granted her fewer highs than lows.
"It hurts," she said. "When I came off the court I just felt like the whole world was coming down on me. That my heart was being ripped out."
The duel under the floodlights was a late arrangement to make up for days of rain delays, but the crowd, stimulated by Capriati's passion and commitment, turned a half-full Arthur Ashe Stadium into a rousing arena.
When defeating Serena Williams in the semi-finals of the French Open last June, Henin had the Paris crowd on her side, cheering Williams's errors. The reverse was the case here, and New Yorkers certainly know how to intimidate when they are in the mood.
At first Henin kept the crowd quiet by breaking Capriati twice to take a 4-1 lead in the opening set. The Belgian was upset when a point for 5-2 was over-ruled, but the crowd, remembering how Henin had held up a hand on a point against Williams in Paris, took delight in shouting her down.
Having recovered to take the set, Capriati began to take control. Though Henin continued to go for winners in the second set, Capriati refused to accept any point as a lost cause, retrieving drop-shots and surging to counter Henin's famous backhand.
All was going well until Capriati had a chance to close the match out at 5-3. A combination of the American's nerves and Henin's determination conspired to cause a dramatic change, Henin winning four games in a row to snatch the set away and level the match.
Henin broke in the opening game of the final set with one of those splendid cross-court backhands, but Capriati immediately recovered the break and appeared to have navigated a second course to the final when Henin missed a forehand to lose serve for 1-3.
Although the crowd tried to ignore the déjà vu that spread across the court as Capriati prepared to serve at 5-3, Henin seemed to feed off it. She unnerved Capriati with a backhand winner and then lured her opponent to net a backhand on break point.
By now, Capriati was in full "how can this be happening to me?" mode. Although Henin jarred her left thigh in the 12th game, renewed confidence carried her through the tie-break. The Belgian won the first three points and refused to give ground, winning the shoot-out 7-4.
"You have to give her credit," Capriati said, "for the way she was feeling, just to stay out there and try to win. But I definitely had the match in my hands. I just beat myself. I lost the momentum a couple of times."
Having redeemed her career by winning the Australian Open and the French Open in 2001 and the Australian Open again in 2002 to become world No 1, Capriati had hoped finally to capitalise at the US Open in the absence of the Williams sisters. In 1991, it may remembered, Capriati was nudged out of the semi-finals after a tremendous battle with Monica Seles.
"Probably in the next few days it's going to be hard to look at as just a match," Capriati said. "But it's not the end of the world. Worse things can happen. Before, maybe, I would have been more devastated. I wouldn't have handled it the right way. But now, instead of looking at myself as a failure for not winning, I know I gave it all I had and showed a lot of heart."
Lindsay Davenport, the other American hope in the women's tournament, was defeated by Clijsters, 6-2, 6-3. Davenport intends to have surgery to her injured left foot.