It has been a staggering 20 years since Andy Roddick triumphed in front of a jubilant crowd at the US Open in 2003 – the last American man to do so in singles. But this year, it’s also the 20th anniversary of a match remembered by everyone in women’s tennis: the semi-final between Justine Henin and Jennifer Capriati.
A hellish struggle of more than three hours that ran beyond midnight, it was played at a stratospheric level and with unprecedented intensity, with twists and turns, cramps, and a joyful denouement for the Belgian, who eventually won 7-6 in the third set after she had passed up two match points.
Twenty years later, Henin has discussed the match which is considered to this day as the defining moment of her career, and at the very least, the most emotional. When she looked back, she first recalled the icy handshake at the net after the win, with Capriati left feeling broken by disappointment. The Belgian understood perfectly.
I was in a haze, with cramps, tiredness, emotion, adrenaline and this unexpected victory at the end of all of the suspense, so I don’t really remember a very cold handshake. I had a good relationship with Jennifer and there was a lot of respect between us, mutual recognition, but we didn’t have an especially close relationship.
We had already had some intense matches, but there was never any antipathy between us. Basically, I thought that disappointment, from her side, was truly overwhelming for her that evening. She had the match in her hands so many times. She probably thought she was going to win. She was disappointed and I understood that.
I looked back at the match later and I saw the situation she was in; it was really painful. We all know these types of dreadful moments in a career. That evening, she had experienced a really difficult time. In front of her public, she wanted to go all the way. This handshake, it wasn’t a lack of respect. It was just a symbol of her enormous sadness. I have seen the photos of her press conference, and you can see it was very tough. I have known moments like that, where you have everything in your hands to win, and then at the end there is a terrible disillusionment. For her, that was the strongest after this match.
Jennifer was one of the players I preferred to play against, and she had a very particular strike. It was very heavy but very pure. Playing against her, even if it was very physical, I liked it. This match above all, it became clearly epic. It was massive.
New York, it’s sui generis. It was 20 years ago; I was still a young woman at the time. I was coming off the back of my first Grand Slam win at Roland-Garros a few weeks before. I already had a little baggage and a bit of experience, but I had to be ready to take on new adventures.
For me, playing in the US was difficult. My character is a bit shy and introverted, and I was coming up against an exuberant public. I struggled to express myself there. I had spent time in Florida at the end of 2002 with my fitness trainer, Pat Etchverry, which had gone well. I was getting better at English, discovering a bit more about American culture, but I still had further to go. So, to play a US Open semi-final, against an American champion on Arthur Ashe, in a night session, it was something really special.
That evening, I felt a little bit overwhelmed by everything and I almost left early on. The atmosphere is already unique in New York, but it’s even more special in the night sessions. If I came into the match and used that quality, I could play brilliantly, and that’s what happened.
I have a vague memory of a point to go 5-3 up in the first set when the umpire overruled a line call for one of my balls which was on the line and said it was out. That was one of the things that could happen at the time because we didn’t have Hawkeye. The technology was not in use as I later became accustomed too, and I benefited from it. I have to watch the images again to see the kind of spirit I was in – 20 years ago, I started to feel old! From that moment, Jennifer was the strongest player on the court, clearly.
She had played the match in a state of excitement. Throughout it all, it was electric. She wanted to impress and entertain her public. It’s normal, and she looked to get rid of me. Maybe it was at this point in the first set when she started to have the clear momentum, and she won it 6-4.
I believe that she was two points from victory on nine occasions in the match, even if she never had a match point to convert, but I was dominated. I trailed 6-3 5-2. She was really solid that day and in the zone. She played the best tennis of her career on that day – I was on the ropes.
There are matches like that where the match shifts. It could have been that I’d have lost 6-3 6-2, and I would have been in the shower after the match and looking towards the next competition. But no, I went three sets, and it took three hours to complete a match that went down in people’s memories. I would not say it went down in history, but you don’t know it until after. At the time, it didn’t register. She was just trying to win, and I was just trying to survive. I was still in a big battle on the court, and I never had the mentality to give up, even if I didn’t expect to be the winner.
Little by little, I had the feeling that, by staying in the match, I could feel the nervousness growing around her. It was really palpable. I saw the impatience, and it’s understandable when she came so close to winning so many times. One time, two times, three times, nine times. That can make you a bit crazy.
I was going to recover in the second set, and then win it. We were in a match that became completely ridiculous, a level of tennis that was exceptional. I have memories of certain points. In the second set, I was two points from defeat (at 6-3 5-3 30-A on Capriati’s service) I returned a brilliant half-volley, followed by a defensive lob at break point, and that completely changed the match. That’s the instinct I’m talking about. I had almost lost the match, so it was necessary for me to try something else. There was aggression, daring, and above all, instinct.
After, in the third set, I was still 5-2 down and I started to believe again, but I was taken down by cramp. I don’t remember exactly how it started, if it was all of a sudden brutal or if I could feel them coming. I think nevertheless, it was quite sudden. Cramp is often like that, from a movement. I was really tired. I had run so much trying to keep up with her.
I felt ready physically, but the demands she placed on me were really tough, and then there was the tension to deal with too. We know with cramp it’s often to do with stress. I was going to battle and had to give everything to get to the end of the match. It was not easy for her because she could see it, and that put her under more pressure. She would really have to win the match now. But at the end, with the cramps, it was my force of character. It was almost destiny that I would have to win it.
It’s beautiful, the madness of sport, where anything can happen, and nothing is decided, even when you feel you’re being dominated. I felt really small the whole match, I can’t explain it. Why and how could this match change? It happened, but we don’t really have any explanation, a way to describe it. It happened, that’s all. You are transported by the moment. Sometimes there’s a bit of luck, a helping hand. That can really change things. It’s necessary to be humble when you think about it.
Six months earlier, it was certain that I would not have made it. My win at Roland-Garros helped me, but above all, it was the physical work I had done. In between the tournaments, I had worked really hard. In July, I was with Pat; after that, I was in the top 10. We knew my tennis abilities, but I was not ready physically.
When I met Pat in November 2022, I asked him what he thought about me. He said: “You have the talent of a world No. 1 but the fitness of a world No. 70.”
That shocked me, but I liked it. From then, I started to work on my fitness much more intensely. We knew that it was a risk, that we could not push it too hard, but it was essential if I wanted to win Grand Slams and achieve my ambitions. With my frame, when you’re 1.65m, playing against powerful opponents, you have to be able to stand up to them, otherwise it’s impossible.
I threw myself into it, even if it was very hard. I remember the physical strains that led to me sleeping poorly, but the fact that I was able to take on the work gave me a huge confidence boost. I would never have beaten Jennifer if I had not done all that work.
I proved so much more to myself in that match than I had at Roland-Garros. The emotions I experienced at the end of the match, the madness of the public that evening, it’s something that I guard with me to this day because I was not used to living these types of moments or enjoying them.
This match is still one of the most beautiful moments of my career. Definitely in the top five. It’s one of the matches that define my career. There was my first win at Roland-Garros, but that wasn’t a big match. In terms of emotions, it was something else. There was also my victory against Anastasia Myskina in the semi-finals of the Olympics, when I was 6-1 down in the third set. My win against Maria Sharapova in the final of the WTA Finals. We hold on to satisfaction when we live these dramatic matches, at a really high level, with loads of emotion. So, yes, maybe it’s the biggest moment of my career.
After the match, I had to have an infusion to rehydrate in the two hours after the match. I went to sleep at five or six in the morning. I had trouble sleeping, knowing that I would have to play in the evening against Kim Clijsters. When I got back to the hotel that night, I still felt euphoric. There was pleasure, happiness, but also a bit of doubt because I had to play again in a few hours. But I was also in the moment.
For the final, there wasn’t time to get nervous because I was trying to be ready to play. I had gone to sleep when the sun was coming up. After I got up, I ate a little and planned for the upcoming match.
The day passed so quickly that I didn’t have a discussion to consider if I was able to play, or if I was going to forfeit. One thing was for sure, the last training session made it clear that I was okay to play. I was not injured and there was no risk in me playing. I was very tired, yes, but I wasn’t in danger.
When there’s only one match left, and when it’s the final of a Grand Slam, we’re capable of playing through pain and huge tiredness. I was carried by the moment, knowing it was a huge moment in my career. Then, Kim knew my state and what I’d been through in the semi-final, and ultimately, maybe the pressure was on her. It wasn’t on me.
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