Henin cuts short the Capriati party

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Jennifer Capriati's chances of winning the Grand Slam of all four major tennis titles finally ended in the muggy heat of Wimbledon's Centre Court yesterday, Justine Henin winning their semi-final 4-6, 6-4, 6-2. But there is another obituary that needs writing here. For Henin not only stopped the Comeback Kid dead in her tracks, she also dealt a mortal blow to the old gag about there being no famous Belgians. Born in Liège just 19 years ago, this girl is famous already and will become steadily more so, especially if she beats Venus Williams in tomorrow's final.

At first, however, an ultimately pulsating semi-final looked like a mismatch, like the sturdy school captain against a slip of a fourth-former out of her depth. Capriati, the 25-year-old Australian and French Open champion, wrapped up the first set in just 21 minutes. She was not playing at her formidable best but then she never needed to.

Henin – playing her second successive Grand Slam semi-final, after losing in Paris to her compatriot Kim Clijsters (voila, another famous Belgian) – seemed nervous, out of sorts, her acclaimed backhand only occasionally potent. Capriati twice broke serve and, when Henin double-faulted to hand the American set-point, it seemed for all the world as if we were in for a straight-sets romp. It was, whisper it, all a little dull. The crowd got emotional only once, when somebody's mobile phone played what sounded suspiciously like the theme tune from Chitty Chitty Bang Bang.

John Major watched from the Royal Box. Even he looked a tad bored. We should have known better. If Capriati has a motto, it might as well be 'expect the unexpected'. Her comeback from drugs, alcohol, and shop-lifting hell, not to mention the bowels of Coral Gables police precinct, is arguably the most inspiring sporting story of the last decade. But this time the unexpected got the better of her.

Capriati started the second set as she finished the first, confidently driving her ground strokes to within millimetres of the baseline. She won her second service game to love, delivering a 110 mph serve into Henin's midriff, and afterwards gazed intently at her father and coach, Stefano, who gave a little clap, as if to say "just keep it going, honey, and it's all yours". But then came the turning point. Henin called for the trainer, who treated a painful blister on her right foot. Lord knows what he put on it, but it certainly did the trick. After that, a deflated but gracious Capriati said later, "she came out swinging... then all of a sudden... she was just on her game".

She sure was. Henin levelled at 2-2 and then broke Capriati's serve with some glorious, uninhibited stroke-making. Her backhand, propelled with an almost audible snap of the wrist, drew gasps from the crowd, but she is by no means a one-trick pony. She threw up inch-perfect lobs and executed deft drop-shots from the back of the court, the works. As marvellous as it is to watch the muscular Williams sisters, and Lindsay Davenport, and Capriati herself, playing this game, it is a joy to know that a 5ft 5in slip-of-a-lass can still sweep all before her. Or all but one, and maybe Venus too.

Although Capriati broke back immediately to level at 3-3, Henin restated her intentions by overcoming the Capriati serve again. A single cry of "Allez Justine!" rang out amid the vociferous Capriati support as she finished off the second set 6-4, following exactly the pattern of the only previous match between this pair, the semi-final of this year's German Open, which went 6-4, 2-6, 2-1 in Capriati's favour before Henin retired, after suffering a sprained ankle.

But that was on clay. Wimbledon involves, very nearly, a different ball game. And yesterday it suited Henin. She took her full repertoire of shots into the third set, breaking Capriati to love in the first game and racing to a 4-0 lead. The Comeback Kid was drinking in the Last-Chance Saloon. And looking distinctly the worse for wear. Her shoulders slumped, and the body-language was similarly eloquent in the players' box where Stefano Capriati stopped leaning forward and sat back, arms folded, the dream all but over.

Four games later it was, Henin hurling her racquet in the air and clapping her hands to her head in delight and amazement. "I couldn't think that I could win when it was 6-2, 2-1," she said. "But when I broke her in the second, I said 'OK, maybe you have a chance'." As for Capriati, she denied that the prospect of winning the Grand Slam had ever loomed large in her mind. "Everyone was making the big deal out of the Grand Slam but me," she said, with the ghost of a smile. "I'm pretty happy with the way the year has gone so far."

As indeed she should be. And so should Henin, making only her second appearance at Wimbledon after losing in the first round last year. Not only has 2001 yielded a semi-final place in the French Open, she also recorded the biggest upset of her brief career, beating Venus Williams 6-1, 6-4 in the third round of the German Open. The same result tomorrow will earn her a place in the record books. But unlike Williams, and unlike Capriati, she will not have a proud father looking on. Henin and her father are estranged, and her mother, who encouraged her love of tennis, died two years ago. She has done a lot of growing up in 19 years. Goodness knows what is yet to come.