Flushing Meadows Saturday, 6 September
There was bound to be a new twist at the United States Open in the absence of the injured Williams sisters, though few observers could have anticipated seeing a contest to be ranked among the greatest of women's singles matches.
Like many of life's treats, the Friday night semi-final duel under the floodlights between the Belgian Justine Henin-Hardenne and the American Jennifer Capriati was almost an afterthought, a late arrangement to make up for days of rain delays.
Capriati, determined to enhance her reputation as one of sport's celebrated comeback kids by advancing to the final of her home Grand Slam championships for the first time, was agonisingly close.
She served for the match at 5-3 in the second set and at 5-3 in the final set, and came within two points of victory nine times. To the anguish of the partisan spectators, the 27-year-old Capriati was unable to summon the wherewithal to finish the job. However, Capriati's downfall was due only in part to edginess on the key points. The skill and tenacity of her slender opponent was a bigger factor.
The spectators were as stunned as Capriati when the second-seeded Henin prevailed after three hours, 4-6, 7-5, 7-6. When Henin defeated Serena Williams in the semi-finals of the French Open in June, the Paris crowd cheered Williams's errors. The reverse was the case at Flushing Meadows.
At first, Henin was able to keep 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 overruled, but the crowd, remembering how Henin had held up a hand to delay 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 celebrated backhand. All went well for Capriati until she had a chance to close the match out at 5-3. Henin salvaged four games in a row to snatch the set away and level the match.
Henin broke in the opening game of the final set, but Capriati recovered the break immediately and appeared to have navigated a second course to the final when Henin missed a forehand to lose serve for 1-3. As Capriati prepared to serve at 5-3, Henin unnerved her with a backhand winner and then lured the American into netting a backhand on break point.
Though Henin jarred her left thigh in the 12th game, renewed confidence carried her through the tie-break, which she won, 7-4. Even biased observers swallowed their disappointment and rose to acclaim the Belgian and celebrate an unforgettable battle.
Capriati went off in search of a place to shed tears. "That's what the locker-room's for," she said later. "I just need to sleep," a dehydrated Henin said before leaving the court and being put on an IV drip.
She returned the following night to beat her compatriot Kim Clijsters in the final, going on to end the year as the world No 1.