Henin-Hardenne stuns Williams

Published 12:00 am Friday, June 6, 2003

PARIS -- Maybe Serena Williams really is the biggest, strongest, fastest player with the best strokes in women's tennis, as Andre Agassi says.

That doesn't make her unbeatable.

Rattled by a hostile crowd and a brazen opponent, Williams fell shy Thursday in her bid for a fifth consecutive Grand Slam title.

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Justine Henin-Hardenne ended Williams' one-year domination in major events by beating her 6-2, 4-6, 7-5 in the semifinals of the French Open.

Said Williams' mother and coach, Oracene Price: ''She knew this job was dangerous when she took it.''

It was the first defeat for Williams in her past 34 Grand Slam matches, but her second loss in a row to Henin-Hardenne. Williams was 21-0 this year before the Belgian beat her in Charleston, S.C., in April.

While Williams will remain No. 1 next week, there's been a slight shift in the balance of power.

''I hope things are going to change,'' Henin-Hardenne said. ''She remains a great champion, very difficult to beat. So it's early to say anything. But the gap is becoming smaller.''

One indication: On Saturday, Roland Garros will host the first Grand Slam final since the 2002 Australian Open featuring someone other than the Williams sisters.

Instead, it will be the first all-Belgian Grand Slam final. The fourth-seeded Henin-Hardenne will play No. 2 Kim Clijsters, who advanced by beating Nadia Petrova 7-5, 6-1.

''To have two players in the final, that's unbelievable for the country,'' Henin-Hardenne said. ''Belgian people have to be going crazy.''

The crowd went crazy Thursday for Henin-Hardenne and cheered mistakes by Williams, rooting for an end to her Grand Slam streak.

''She's had her chance so many times,'' Henin-Hardenne said. ''Maybe it's time to give someone else a chance.''

Cheers became jeers when Williams annoyed fans by questioning two close calls that ultimately went in her favor. In the pivotal seventh game of the final set, with Williams serving and leading 4-2, she became so unnerved that she lost four consecutive points and the game.

Her mother criticized the fans.

''A lack of class and total ignorance,'' Price said. ''Or they just don't know tennis and the etiquette of tennis.''

Discussing the subject in her postmatch news conference, Williams choked up.

''I'm not used to crying,'' she said, wiping away tears. ''It's a little difficult. All my life I've had to fight. It's just another fight I'm going to have to learn how to win, that's all. I'm just going to have to keep smiling.''

Williams lost the final game at love. When she hit an errant return on match point, she walked around the net and brusquely shook Henin-Hardenne's hand.

Again the crowd booed. Williams said she was miffed at Henin-Hardenne regarding one of the disputes with the chair umpire.

Williams hit an errant serve as Henin-Hardenne appeared to ask for time. But the umpire didn't see Henin-Hardenne make the request, and she denied doing it, so the serve stood.

''I was a little disappointed with her,'' Williams said. ''It wasn't the turning point of the match, obviously, but I think to start lying and fabricating is not fair.''

Henin-Hardenne didn't address the disputed serve. She was diplomatic when asked about the fan behavior.

''The crowd gave me all the support I need to win,'' she said. ''I say thank you to them, but it's true that sometimes it was a little bit too much.''

Loyalties will be more evenly divided Saturday. King Albert and Queen Paola of Belgium will be part of the crowd, ready to applaud the first Belgian Grand Slam champion.