Serena’s Semifinal Loss Is a Real Crowd-Pleaser

Times Staff Writer

The French Open crowd at Roland Garros was furiously against Serena Williams, booing her double faults, laughing and cheering at her mistakes, howling angrily when she pointed out the marks the ball had made in the clay, marks that indicated her opponent’s shots were long.

And that opponent, Justine Henin-Hardenne, was quick and light and creative. Her one-handed backhand was touching the lines. She used her forehand with stealth, a quick shot that went whizzing past Williams with a sudden hiss and a deadly finish.

It was all too much for Williams, aiming for her 33rd consecutive match victory in a major tournament, heading for her fifth Grand Slam title in a row. The world’s best female tennis player lost a little of her nerve and a lot of her invulnerability Thursday in the French Open semifinals.


Fourth-seeded Henin-Hardenne, noted as much for her unsteady spirit at big moments as for her elegant athleticism, conquered Williams, the top-seeded defending champion, 6-2, 4-6, 7-5.

Henin-Hardenne’s win set up the first all-Belgian Grand Slam final. In the day’s first match, second-seeded Kim Clijsters eliminated 76th-ranked Nadia Petrova of Russia, 7-5, 6-1.

Afterward, Williams wept. “It was just a tough crowd out there today,” she said. She held up a hand as tears filled her eyes, then said, “I’m not used to crying. It’s a little difficult. All my life I’ve had to fight. So it’s just another fight I’m going to have to learn how to win. I’ve got to just keep smiling.”

While the crowd in the Philippe Chatrier center court was never on Williams’ side, it turned more mean-spirited in the sixth game of the third set. Henin-Hardenne hit a ball that was clearly wide. Williams pointed to the mark in the clay and walked away, not finishing the point. The chair umpire agreed. The crowd did not. Henin-Hardenne had her serve broken at love in the game to go down, 4-2.

Williams won the first point of the seventh game when Henin-Hardenne hit a forehand wide. The crowd believed that ball, which left a clear mark out of bounds, was good. They booed even more.

In all the noise, Henin-Hardenne put her hand up, calling for time. Williams hit a first serve into the net, then looked toward chair umpire Jorge Dias of Portugal. Dias indicated he had not seen Henin-Hardenne ask for time and would not give Williams a first serve. Williams won the point when Henin-Hardenne hit a forehand long. The noise got louder and angrier. Clearly unnerved, Williams lost the next four points and her serve.


“I was a little disappointed with her,” Williams said of Henin-Hardenne, who would not acknowledge asking for time out. “It wasn’t the turning point. I probably still should have won the game. But I think to start lying and fabricating, it’s not fair.”

Henin-Hardenne, who had failed to hold serve her previous two games, rode the robust backing of the fans to win her serve and tie the third set, 4-4, and then break Williams’ serve for a 5-4 lead.

On her first chance to serve for the match, the 21-year-old Belgian hit two double faults and had two unforced errors to get broken. But Williams, who was being cheered on every service miss and booed between each serve, could not hold in the 11th game.

“I think it’s bad when people start booing in between serves,” Williams said. “You’re not serving well anyway, and then you miss your first serve. Everyone’s booing and screaming. The second serve, you really slow it down to get it in.”

Leading, 6-5, and with her second chance to serve for the match, Henin-Hardenne became imperturbable. She won the first point with a lob, the second on a sizzling service winner, the third on a service winner that handcuffed Williams. Match point was another gutsy serve, deep in the box. Williams hit a forehand return wildly wide.

Williams gave Henin-Hardenne a quick handshake and was followed by raucous boos on every step she took out of the stadium.

“The crowd gave me all the support I needed to win the match,” said Henin-Hardenne, who reached her first French Open and second Grand Slam final. “It was unbelievable playing in this atmosphere. I was so happy they were totally behind me.”

Oracene Price, Williams’ mother and coach, was visibly upset by the crowd behavior. “A lack of class and total ignorance,” Price said. “Or they just don’t know tennis and the etiquette of tennis.”

Williams had been roughly treated by fans in the semifinals of the Australian Open when she beat Clijsters, whose boyfriend is Australian Lleyton Hewitt.

And at Indian Wells in 2001, Williams was booed throughout the championship match against Clijsters after her sister, Venus, had abruptly withdrawn from a semifinal match, moments before the first point and after the fans had filled the stadium.

When first asked if a hostile crowd made things hard for her, she said, “No, it doesn’t.” But then her voice quavered again and more tears came. “Actually, that’s a lie,” she said. “It definitely makes it harder.”

This will be the first Grand Slam final since the 2002 Australian Open without either Venus or Serena Williams.

“I made a few too many unforced errors,” Williams said. “I need to go home and get my serve together. I enjoy the challenge, I really do. I have something to look forward to when I play my next tournament at Wimbledon.”



Women’s Final

*--* * Who: Kim Clijsters (2), Belgium, vs. Justine Henin-Hardenne (4), Belgium * Final: Saturday, 6 a.m., Ch. 4 * Head-to-head: Clijsters leads, 7-3