Perfection the goal as Capriati aims to take Serena's crown

John Roberts,Florida
Saturday 29 March 2003 01:00

Supremacy IS a constant topic when Serena Williams is in the interview room. Having reached the final of the Nasdaq-100 Open here without playing particularly well, the world No 1 said: "If I'm playing my best tennis, I don't think anyone right now can beat me."

Today, on her 27th birthday, Jennifer Capriati will endeavour to become the first opponent to defeat Williams this season, having suffered at the hands of both Serena and her older sister, Venus, in the past two finals here. In 2001, Capriati was unable to convert any of eight match points against Venus. Last year, in losing to Serena, Capriati led 5-4 in the first set and 5-3 in the second set, holding seven set points.

In defeating Chanda Rubin in the semi-finals yesterday, 6-2, 6-4, Capriati displayed her capacity to recover from set-backs, some caused by her errors, but it remains to be seen whether she still has what it takes to overcome the most powerful woman in the game. "I'm just going to try to play perfect tennis," Capriati said.

Kim Clijsters, figuratively kicking herself for not being able to take advantage after catching Williams an off day in their semi-final on Thursday – not to mention being reeled in after leading her 5-1 in the final set in the Australian Open semi-finals – seems to agree that only Serena can beat Serena.

"I'm sure Serena hits the ball even harder than Venus," the Belgian world No 3 said. "She serves better than Venus. She moves unbelievably well. So if she leaves the unforced errors out, I don't see how anyone else could beat her. But in a tennis match, it doesn't always go your way."

With strength and fitness now the dominant features in the women's game, so the element of hit-or-miss has increased. "Because we hit the ball so hard and go for so many shots," Clijsters said, "you'll see some amazing points, some amazing winners from maybe a metre behind the baseline. But you'll see unforced errors as well."

Clijsters withdrew from the doubles yesterday because of a stomach virus, which may explain her lack of vigour in the Williams match, in which she only hit six winners. Capriati, on the other hand, looked fit and healthy, if on the bulky side, when eliminating Rubin.

Rubin, who has undergone three operations since losing to Steffi Graf in the 1996 final here, is now back in the world top 10. She started brightly against Capriati, breaking in the opening set, but then double-faulted to lose her own serve in the second game. Unable to convert either of two opportunities on Capriati's serve in the second game, Rubin was subsequently broken for 1-3 and again when serving to stay in the set at 5-2 down.

Capriati lost her serve in the third game of the second set when Rubin crafted an angled backhand drop-volley. Both players then held to love before Capriati levelled the set, 3-3. Rubin double-faulted to 3-5, but delayed Capriati by breaking to 4-5. A confident backhand drive by Capriati ended Rubin's resistance after 73 minutes. "I knew she wasn't going to give it to me easily," Capriati said. "I was challenged more in the second set, and I was able to counteract that."

Although Williams has won their six previous matches, Capriati emphasised that the difference between them has been "a few points here and there." She added: "It's a question of not letting up on those few points. Here serve is really good. She's got herself out of a lot of jams with her serve. But if you keep trying, you finally get rewarded. Either way, I'm happy to be in the final."

Capriati's match against Rubin was held over until yesterday because of thunderstorms on Thursday night. At least they were able to start from the first point, unlike Albert Costa and Roger Federer, who walked on court at noon yesterday to finish their men's quarter-final with Costa leading, 6-5, deuce, on Federer's serve.

The Swiss fourth seed, who had been unable to convert two match points when serving at 5-4 the previous night, won the opening two point yesterday to force a third-set tie break. He created a third match point at 6-5 on Costa's serve in the shoot-out, only to net a forehand. The Spaniard went on to secure his second match point at 8-7, helped by a net cord.

Costa, the French Open champion, surprised spectators by his willingness to serve and volley. "I'm trying to hit my first serve faster and go to the net more," he said. "I'm playing more doubles now, and that has improved my volleying a lot. I'm not going to play serve and volley all the time, because it's not my way, but I'm trying to improve my game every day."

Australia will monitor world developments and security issues before deciding whether their Fed Cup team will travel to Spain for their first-round match in Tarragona next month.

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