WATCH—Stories of the Open Era – Tennis in Media:
Flushing Meadows is tennis’ largest stage, and over the last 50 years, it has been the site of some of the sport’s greatest dramas. This week, we’ll count down the 10 most memorable US Open matches of the Open Era. To follow the countdown, click here.
“Anyone for tennis?” The question sounds so innocuous, like asking someone if they want to take a walk in the park. Don’t try to tell that to Jennifer Capriati, not after what happened to her at the US Open on September 5, 2003. That night, when she lost to Justine Henin in a traumatic epic in Ashe Stadium, the 27-year-old American reminded us of just how brutal this polite sport can be.
“When I came off the court, I just felt the whole world was coming down on me,” Capriati told reporters. “My heart was being ripped out.”
Those are strong words, but virtually anyone who watched the inspiring, soul-crushing, three-hour and three-minute roller coaster between Henin and Capriati could understand the loser’s feelings that night.
Capriati had wanted to win this match as badly as any she had played since turning pro 14 years earlier. In 2001 and 2002, she had returned from oblivion to win three major titles and reach No. 1, but she hadn’t been able to redeem herself at her home Grand Slam. Now she was back in the semifinals, the round where, 12 years earlier, she had hit her first career ceiling as a 15-year-old. In 1991, she had lost her first soul-crushing semifinal classic, to fellow teen Monica Seles, in a third-set tiebreaker. While Seles went on to win the tournament and dominate the sport for the next two years, a crest-fallen Capriati would steadily decline before leaving the sport in 1994. It would be eight years before reached another major semi.
Now here she was, back at the Open, with a chance to make the final again. Capriati wore a star-spangled dress for the occasion, and the crowd roared for her like it hadn’t roared for anyone not named Connors or Agassi. But like Seles in ’91, the 5’6” Henin may not have looked like much, but she was an intimidating mountain to climb. Seeded second, she had beaten Serena Williams on her way to winning the French Open that spring.
If anything, the quality and drama of Henin-Capriati surpassed that of Seles-Capriati. Where that match had been a straight-ahead slugfest, this one featured a contrast between Henin’s varied attack and Capriati’s no-frills power. No lead was safe: Henin led 4-1 in the first set, until Capriati reeled off five straight games to win it. In the second set, Capriati led 5-3 and served for the match, but it was Henin’s turn to put together a four-game streak and level the match at one-set all.
By the end of the second set, the rallies had reached ever-more-punishing lengths; Henin won one by chasing down a topspin lob of Capriati’s and sending up a lob winner of her own. That trend only grew more pronounced in the third; Capriati looked more and more exhausted, while Henin began to cramp.
“It was getting pretty overwhelming out there,” Capriati said of the fraught night-match atmosphere.
Still, Capriati built a seemingly insurmountable 5-2 lead. But Henin, even as she clutched her leg and tried to ignore the crowd’s raucous applause for her missed first serves, refused to fold. Capriati was two points from victory 11 times; after the last of them, she drop-kicked her racquet. When the two women reached 6-6, the U.S. fans forgot their hostility toward Henin for a moment and gave both women a standing ovation. In the end, it was Henin who found a way through the deciding tiebreaker 7-4. Less than 24 hours later, she somehow found her way past her countrywoman Kim Clijsters for her first US Open title.
Henin-Capriati was a prize fight in which both players were knocked cold. While Capriati was forced to describe her heart-ripping pain in her post-match interview, at least she was able to make it there. We’ll never know how Henin felt at the moment of victory; instead of talking to the press, she was receiving intravenous fluids in the trainers room.
Anyone for tennis?
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