Hurricane Serena blows away Capriati

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The Independent Online

After the Australian cricket team had been crushed in an Ashes Test - long, long ago, obviously - captain Kim Hughes was interviewed on television and looked about as despondent as it is possible for a man without a noose around his neck to look. When the camera cut back to presenter Richie Benaud, as usual eyeing the lens in the manner of a disdainful lizard, he said, "Kim Hughes there, looking like he'd just been sandbagged."

After the Australian cricket team had been crushed in an Ashes Test - long, long ago, obviously - captain Kim Hughes was interviewed on television and looked about as despondent as it is possible for a man without a noose around his neck to look. When the camera cut back to presenter Richie Benaud, as usual eyeing the lens in the manner of a disdainful lizard, he said, "Kim Hughes there, looking like he'd just been sandbagged."

In front of the media yesterday after a devastating, 45-minute, 6-1, 6-1 quarter-final victory by a rampant Serena Williams, 28-year-old Jennifer Capriati made the Kim Hughes of that long-ago interview look like the Laughing Policeman.

Players at Wimbledon are obliged to give post-match interviews, win or lose, but sometimes it feels uncomfortably like an intrusion into private grief. Close to tears throughout, Capriati looked as though she would rather be anywhere else, even back on Centre Court. And her gloom intensified during persistent questioning about her rivalry with Williams, whom she had beaten in three sets at the same stage of this year's French Open.

"When everyone's talking about it so much, it's very hard to just go out there and completely focus on tennis," she said. "It's like, I can't walk around with earplugs, you know." But surely, someone ventured, keen rivalries are what make tennis so exciting? "But I think the rivalry speaks for itself," Capriati said. "It's just there, you know. It's like the people don't ... I mean, they can see for themselves." She then insisted, the gloom now laced with faint menace, that the subject be dropped.

All the same, tennis rivalries don't come much keener than Capriati's with the younger Williams sister. This was their 16th meeting, with the score 9-6 in Williams' favour. Of those previous 15 encounters, all but four had gone the full three sets. And of the four straight-sets matches, honours were even at two-all, Capriati's 6-4, 6-4 victory in the semi-final of this year's Rome Masters the only one that hadn't involved a tie-break.

In other words, they usually push each other to the wire.

Moreover, it is an open secret that the Capriati-Williams mutual appreciation society is devoid of members.

All of which puts into perspective the magnitude of Williams' win on a gusty Centre Court. It takes some wind to blow Capriati away, but yesterday the seventh seed found herself in the path of a hurricane. Williams served wonderfully and seemed to find the baseline with every ground stroke.

Awesome is an overused word, but that's just what she was, serving at up to 119mph and, against the serve, landing over 80 per cent of returns. In the first set, by contrast, the hapless Capriati's backhand yielded not a single point.

Throughout the match, with Tim Henman v Mario Ancic next up, there was a palpable feeling on Centre Court that this quarter-final was before the Lord Mayor's Show. Which of course was ridiculous; Serena v Jennifer should never be cast in the role of curtain-raiser. Besides, little though we knew it, the Lord Mayor's Show itself would turn out to be something of an anti-climax.

None the less, Capriati seemed to pick up the vibe, appearing only semi-committed, hitting a string of unforced errors and offering only occasional flickers of resistance. The cries of "C'mon Jen" and even "we love you, Jen" seemed merely to sap her spirits further.

Williams double-faulted twice to hand Capriati the third game of the second set, but the defending champion was already a break up, and after that rare lapse went on to complete the job in 45 minutes, before dropping her trademark curtsy to the crowd and blowing kisses to all corners.

In her press conference, however, she too seemed slightly downbeat. Perhaps she knew that her semi-final, against one of the few women even more Amazonian than herself, France's Amélie Mauresmo, cannot possibly be as one-sided. On the other hand, Williams seems to be timing to perfection her assault on a third-successive title, an achievement that Steffi Graf was the last to pull off, in 1991, 1992 and 1993.

Against Capriati, Williams conceded, she had produced her best tennis since Wimbledon last year. And what had she made of the media's pre-match interest in their rivalry? "I don't really read what you guys write," she replied equably. "I just try really to focus mostly on me, what I'm going to do, how I'm going to perform when I'm out there, because that's most important. I think we, myself and Jennifer, have a really good rivalry. But that's not what I'm focused on. I'm focused on, you know, trying to play."

That's probably what Capriati would have said, had the Nike been on the other foot.

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