"I had the match in my hands. It was my match to win. I beat myself."
Jennifer Capriati said the preceding after bowing down to a woman whose sheer mental strength simply refused to wane, even though her physical strength did, in a riveting 183-minute classic.
Down and out with cramps, Justine Henin-Hardenne, who could barely stand on two legs, produced one of the most remarkable comebacks and snatched an improbable victory from Capriati, who was just two points away from winning as many as 10 times.
Capriati was out to avenge her Wimbledon 2001 semifinal loss, and that was evident from the fact that she was the more flamboyant and expressive of the two while Justine was the silent protagonist, observing the sell-out Arthur Ashe crowd vociferously supporting her opponent.
Pound for pound, they fought on as the Big Apple witnessed drama being unravelled in front of their eyes, dotted with magnificence and heroism by two ambassadors of the game who were as obstinate as ever in this semifinal match, worthy of being the final.
"This is the match when the draw was made that I was waiting for," John McEnroe had said at the beginning of the match, and he was indeed right, as the very first game gave an idea of what was yet to come that night.
The three-time Grand Slam champion, Capriati saved two break points and won the first game and soon relishing and delicious tennis was being dished out by the two.
Beautiful serves from both, with variations, some incredible angles and spot-on anticipation power, topspin blended with marvellous slices…it was tennis that was epitomizing beauty.
Henin-Hardenne had never looked fitter, and it was definitely the result of the work she had been doing with Pat Etcheberry since 2002, which catapulted her to her first Grand Slam title at Paris that year and semifinals at the other two Slams.
And so it was she who seized the initiative and went up 4-1 with double breaks of serve.
But Capriati, who herself knew what it took to make a comeback, refused to wilt and started making the necessary amends,the lackluster forehands now more polished and a sense of haste to finish the points early was visible.
The tactic worked and soon errors instead of winners were flowing from Justine’s racket, and before long, the Belgian found herself in a hole as egged on by the partisan crowd, Jennifer reeled off five straight games as the score unbelievably read 6-4 in her favour.
The second set began in the same fashion as the first, with Justine breaking to take the lead.
Brutal yet brilliant, subtle yet spectacular, the quality of tennis continued to soar and the New York crowd simply could not have asked for anything better in a U.S. Open bereft of the Williams sisters.
Jennifer was a superwoman that night, gliding through the air, covering every inch of the court, and with some ominous groundstrokes and sinuous touches at the net, she raced ahead to 5-3 as Justine’s game lay in tatters.
The score stood at 30-30 as the New Yorkers waited with bated breath and Jennifer could not stop beaming, but hardly did they know the drama was far from over.
This was Justine and Jennifer’s sixth meeting and each of their five previous encounters had gone to the distance—tradition could not be broken.
In dramatic fashion, Justine lunged forward to make an incredible half-volley, and a magical exchange of lobs followed.
The score was soon back to level at 5-5.
A smart overhead and some amazing forehands were rattled off, and the crowd was left stunned and speechless. Justine took the second set 7-5.
But the best was saved for the last.
Justine’s majestic backhand started shining, and momentum had apparently shifted in her favour when she began looking jaded and dispirited.
Jennifer immediately pounced on the opportunity. Within minutes, by virtue of her monstrous forehands and some early returns, she was staring at another golden chance to enter the final of her home Slam.
At 2-5, 40-30, Justine served and soon clutched her left thigh, grimaced, and looked in dire need of a medical help.
But the tremendous resilience, stubbornness and the steely nerves that had always been an inextricable part of the Belgian, resurfaced.
Being accused by compatriot Kim Clijsters of intentionally taking time-outs a few weeks ago at San Diego, she carried on and never stopped even once.
Audacious and resolute, the diminutive Justine, refusing to cower, called on her inner spirits and started delivering the unthinkable which Jennifer found hard to penetrate.
In spite of being forced to use her left leg as little as possible, she still managed to flabbergast everybody with an ace and stretch it to the tie-break.
At 12.27 AM, when Capriati dumped her final backhand volley into the net, Henin-Hardennne fell on her knees and buried her head in her hands in a mix of sheer relief, disbelief and ecstasy as everybody was left spellbound.
It was triumph of the indomitable human spirit and staunch belief in oneself that sail one through under the most adverse of situations.
Capriati returned miserably empty-handed after being so close to tasting sweet success which soured at the last moment while Justine emerged courageous and confident more than ever.
Immediately after the match, she was administered IV fluids to treat the dehydration that caused her leg muscles to tighten and she did not even have the physical strength to appear for her post-match press conference.
Barely 19 hours later, she took the court in the final against Kim Clijsters and soon any doubt about her physical condition was dispelled, as Clijsters was forced into submission by an unrelenting Justine, who whacked winner after winner, to clinch her first U.S. Open title.
Justine Henin-Hardenne showed that nothing could intimidate her anymore after coming back from the jaws of defeat the previous night.
And it set the tone and the flavour for the wonderful years that were to be followed, when a brave Justine would face the Williams sisters intrepidly and match them power for power and stroke for stroke.
If her first Grand Slam was mired in controversy, then her second one truly made tennis aficionados' hearts swell with pride on seeing her win and a strong message was sent out to everybody—Justine was here to stay.