Serena Williams accepts that she set herself an impossible goal when she declared her aim was to go through the year unbeaten. But if the world No 1 is able to keep opponents at bay when she is below her best, as she did in defending successfully the Nasdaq-100 Open title here, she will certainly extend her winning sequence beyond the current run of 17 matches.
Jennifer Capriati was the latest victim yesterday, agonisingly losing her third consecutive final in this tournament to the Williams sisters she held eight match points against Venus, the older sibling, in 2001, and last year led Serena 5-4 in the first set and 5-3 in the second set, holding seven set points.
Yesterday Capriati was beaten on a scorching afternoon when Serena made an uncharacteristic 42 unforced errors twice as many as many as Capriati and still came out on top, 4-6 6-4 6-1, after just over two hours. "I've been lazy and not done enough practising," was Williams' explanation.
With temperatures rising above 84F, and much higher on Stadium Court, the players took advantage of the WTA Tour heat rule and took a 10-minute break before the final set. Williams emerged the fresher on their return, still making errors but able to capitalise as Capriati began to wilt.
It was Capriati's 27th birthday, and when she won the first set in the 37 minutes it looked as if the would have cause for a double celebration. She achieved that victory after losing the first two games, but her effort to recover from 0-4 in the second set did not succeed and drained her for the final phase of the contest.
"I did feel tired," Capriati said afterwards. "It was pretty hot out there, and it's tough chasing down her shots. Maybe just the week took its toll on me a little bit. I didn't rest as well as I would have liked last night."
The fifth seed's resolve enabled her to save five break points before losing the second game of the second set, and when she lured Williams into missing a backhand volley to lose serve at 4-0, Capriati's supporters roared encouragement. She was unable to take an opportunity to narrow the gap to 3-4, but succeeded in breaking when Williams served at 5-3, the champion double-faulting on her second set point.
Capriati struggled to hold serve after double-faulting on the first point of the 10th game, and netted a forehand on Williams' third set point.
Close line calls at both ends were a feature of the match, and Capriati was so frustrated when a Williams drive was called when Capriati held a break point in the opening game of the final set that she sank to one knee and cried out in protest. The umpire, Lynn Welch, ignored Capriati's complaint.
Capriati's challenge faded after she was broken for 0-2. She managed to hold for 1-3, but that was the sum of her resistance as Williams took the winners' cheque worth $393,000.
The umpire spent as much time asking spectators to remain quiet during the rallies as she did assuring the players that the line calls were correct. One spectator shouted, "Get mad, Jennifer!" during a rally late in the match and caused a furore. "Out! Out! Out!" chanted the crowd as the culprit was rounded upon.
Andre Agassi will attempt to win the men's singles title for a third time in a row and for the sixth time in total when he plays Carlos Moya, the Spanish former world No 1, today. Agassi, the second seed, defeated Albert Costa, of Spain, the French Open champion, in the semi-finals yesterday, 6-2 6-4. Costa, the ninth seed, made Agassi work for the points, but the 32-year-old American's extraordinary skill and fitness enabled him to prevail.
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