The joyful anticipation of tomorrow's first all-Belgian final in Grand Slam history, between Kim Clijsters and Justine Henin-Hardenne, was soured by the crowd's treatment of Serena Williams, the American world No 1, during the final set of her semi-final against Henin-Hardenne at the French Open here yesterday.
Williams, who had beaten her older sister, Venus, in the last four Grand Slam finals, was booed and heckled on the way to a 6-2, 4-6, 7-5 defeat. The French crowd had not turned on a player so badly since Martina Hingis, of Switzerland, lost to Steffi Graf in the 1999 final.
Hingis brought the abuse on herself by walking round the net to point to a ball mark on Graf's court. Williams called two of Henin-Hardenne's shots out and also asked for a let to be played because her opponent had put her hand up when she was about to serve. The reigning women's champion was also booed at the end of the match when she walked round the net and gave Henin-Hardenne a perfunctory handshake before packing her rackets and walking off the court, her wave to the crowd prompting a mixture of jeers and applause.
With thousands of Belgians among the spectators, support for the slight, 20-year-old Henin-Hardenne was strong from the start, but the crowd did not become outrageously partisan until the sixth game of the third set, with Henin-Hardenne serving at 2-3.
On the first point, Williams, convinced that her opponent's shot had landed wide of the line farthest from the umpire's chair, raised an arm and shouted, "Out!" Williams was awarded the point, and the crowd booed. Williams went on to break to love to lead, 4-2.
In the next game, with Williams serving at 15-0, the Belgian hit a shot over the baseline, and the American again shouted, "Out!" and drew a ring round the ball mark with her racket. As the crowd booed, Henin-Hardenne asked the umpire, Jorge Dias, of Portugal, to check the mark. He agreed that the ball had landed long and awarded Williams the point for 30-0.
This fuelled the crowd's hostility towards Williams, whose every error was cheered. A cry of "allez!" greeted the American's netted forehand for 30-40, followed by jubilation after Henin-Hardenne converted the break point for 3-4 and then held serve to level at 4-4.
It was the second time in the set that the Belgian had recovered a break, having pulled back from 1-3, but by now the crowd's reaction began to drain the element of sportsmanship from the atmosphere.
One of the loudest cheers aimed at Williams erupted after she had double-faulted at 40-30 in the ninth game, before Henin-Hardenne went on to break for 5-4, whipping a backhand across the court in response to one of her opponent's over-optimistic drop-shots.
Serving for the match for the first time, the Belgian was unable to calm her nerves, double-faulting to 0-40 and then hitting a backhand over the baseline.
Williams, serving at 5-5, saved two break points, but hit a backhand wide on the third, giving Henin-Hardenne a second opportunity to serve for a place in the final. The Belgian won the first point with a lob, the second with a service winner, and she also served well enough on the concluding two points for Williams to miss her returns.
The 21-year-old American was in tears in the interview room afterwards. She said that Henin-Hardenne had played well and deserved to win, but that she was "a little disappointed" with the Belgian's reaction to certain decisions. "I didn't make any calls. The balls were out.
"I'm not used to crying," Williams said. "It was a very tough crowd out there today. Story of my life. All my life I've had to fight, and it's just another fight I've got to learn to win. I've got to be a little stronger next time. I think it's bad when people boo between serves. You're not serving well, anyway, and then you miss your first serve and everybody's booing, and then you slow your second serve too slow to get it in. But it's not the crowd's fault I lost."
Asked if she thought there might have been an element of anti-Americanism, Williams said: "I don't think that being American right now, with what's going on between France and America, had anything to do with it. I just think they wanted the underdog to win."
Henin-Hardenne, who lost to Venus Williams in the Wimbledon final in 2001, said she was pleased to have received "such wonderful support" at Roland Garros. "Sometimes it could be a little bit too much, especially when she was missing her first serve," the winner said. "But these things happen in tennis. Maybe if I go to the States it will be the same for me."
The 19-year-old Clijsters advanced to her first Grand Slam final with a 7-5, 6-1 win against Nadia Petrova, of Russia, recovering her form after losing touch with her forehand in the opening set.
* Greg Rusedski reached the Surbiton Trophy quarter-finals with a fluid display, beating Jean-François Bachelot, of France. Rusedski eliminated many of the problems he had suffered in his opening match in this 6-3 6-4 win, secured in an hour. He is joined in the quarter-finals by his fellow Briton, the national champion Alex Bogdanovic, who beat the Canadian Frederic Niemeyer 7-5 6-3.Reuse content