NEW YORK – Maybe Serena Williams wasn’t as healthy as she said. Maybe she wasn’t as match-tested as she really needed to be.
This much is certain: When it comes to playing Justine Henin at Grand Slams this year, Williams has been overmatched every time.
Finding all the right angles and hanging tough on long rallies, Henin beat Williams 7-6 (3), 6-1 Tuesday night to reach the U.S. Open semifinals. They have met in the quarterfinals at three consecutive majors, and Henin is 3-0.
Asked if she could explain what went wrong, a sullen Williams replied: “No. I can’t. I’m sorry. Any more questions?”
“She made a lot of lucky shots,” Williams said a moment later, a white baseball cap pulled low over her eyes, “and I made a lot of errors.”
So while the formerly No. 1-ranked Williams is the active leader among women with eight Grand Slam titles and will stay on that number, current No. 1 Henin will have a chance to get her seventh major.
“Playing Serena is really exciting for me,” Henin said after compiling a 30-17 edge in winners. “I was really happy about the second set. I played much more aggressive.”
Henin’s next opponent could be another Williams: Serena’s older sister, Venus, faces No. 3 Jelena Jankovic in the quarterfinals Wednesday night. Not much question for whom Henin will be rooting, she’s 1-7 against Venus Williams, 7-0 against Jankovic.
Henin beat the younger Williams at the French Open en route to her fourth title in five years there, and again at Wimbledon.
“I got a lot of confidence in Paris and London,” Henin said.
Their matchup at Wimbledon in July didn’t feature Williams at her absolute best: She could barely hit backhands after spraining her left thumb and hurting her left calf in the previous round. Because of the thumb, Williams withdrew from every event she was scheduled to play in the 1 1/2 months between Wimbledon and the U.S. Open.
“I don’t think that affected me,” she said. “I don’t think it did. Maybe it did.”
She arrived at Flushing Meadows full of confidence, as usual, and said she didn’t need tuneup tournaments to get ready. While Williams’ thumb appeared fine, and there were no obvious injuries, her father said Sunday that she was dealing with other physical problems – and doing a “marvelous job of hiding it.”
Regardless, Tuesday’s match featured brilliant play by both past U.S. Open champions, from stinging serves to big groundstrokes to touch volleys. Henin was far better at the net, winning 11 of 14 points when she pressed forward, while Williams was only 5-for-14.
Mostly, though, the difference-maker was Henin’s ability to steer Williams this way and that along the baseline until the Belgian could find an opening for her smooth backhand or a well-placed forehand. Repeatedly, especially in the second set, Henin wrong-footed Williams to end a point.
The first set was much closer and of much higher quality. Henin broke in the opening game by ending a tight net exchange with a forehand volley, and she served for the opening set at 5-4.
But Williams buckled down to break back right there with a backhand return winner down the line and a loud, “Come on!” The tiebreaker began with a 23-stroke point in which Williams made two great defensive plays before swatting a backhand passing winner down the line.
“I really got nervous at that time,” Henin said, “and I knew every point was important.”
She showed it, delivering a 105 mph ace to go up 4-2, followed by a forehand winner she punctuated with a yell of “Allez!” Williams seemed deflated and dumped a forehand into the net to end the set.
“It’s kind of like she had no energy. No get-up-and-go,” said Williams’ mother and coach, Oracene Price. “Tennis is a head game, sometimes. Your head tells you to do something, but you can’t.”
Price rested a cheek on a hand, barely able to watch, as Henin took control right away in the second set, breaking for a 2-0 lead, and that was that, pretty much.