This year, as we celebrate the 50th anniversary of the US Open, we’re counting down the 50 most memorable moments in the history of America’s Grand Slam. Today, we take a look back at No. 44.
On fewer than five hours of sleep and coming off what was, at the time, the longest women’s match in US Open history, Justin Henin-Hardenne turned tiredness into triumph to claim a memorable 2003 US Open title.
In a whirlwind 24 hours inside Arthur Ashe Stadium, Henin-Hardenne rode a rollercoaster of emotions and pushed her body to, if not past, the limit in a highlight-laden semifinal marathon against Jennifer Capriati and a historic championship win over world No. 1 Kim Clijsters.
The drama first started on Friday night with Henin-Hardenne’s 4-6, 7-5, 7-6 victory over Capriati that lasted three hours, three minutes and ended at 12:27 a.m. Saturday morning, still the latest-ever finish to a US Open semifinal.
Capriati was close to the finish line several times, most notably when she served for the match at 5-3 in the second set and led 5-2 in the third. In total, Henin-Hardenne, who let a 4-1 lead in the first set slip through her fingers, was two points from defeat 10 different times. But she managed to fight her way back from the brink each time with a number of timely shots, including an unbelievable half-volley drop shot with Capriati serving for the match and an equally impressive backhand lob that turned defense into attack in the blink of an eye.
Henin-Hardenne served to stay in the match three times, including twice in the second set, when she began cramping between serves, stretching her left leg behind her back and rubbing her thigh between points.
As the match surpassed the three-hour mark and a tiebreak loomed, fans remained on their feet in appreciation of the effort of both gladiators. Even though Capriati had controlled most of the match, it was Henin-Hardenne who inched toward the finish line first, opening up tiebreak leads of 5-1 and 6-2, the latter of which set up four match points, the first for either player.
Capriati saved the first two, but Henin-Hardenne finally prevailed, drawing the American into the net with a short slice and then ripping a forehand down the line that Capriati was unable to return over the net.
Henin-Hardenne dropped her racquet behind her and fell to her knees, hands on her head, to celebrate what had become an instant classic. The match had all the emotions, tension and shot-making of a final, and Henin-Hardenne, even in victory as Friday night turned into Saturday morning, was too exhausted to attend the post-match press conference.
Running on fumes and just hours removed from being on an IV drip in the hospital, Henin-Hardenne returned to Arthur Ashe Stadium on Saturday night to face countrywoman and top seed Clijsters, who dropped just five games to Lindsay Davenport in her semifinal.
But it was Henin-Hardenne who came out of the blocks the quickest, running out to a 3-0 lead behind consecutive breaks of serve. Clijsters converted two break points of her own, but she squandered a pair of set points with Henin-Hardenne serving to stay in the set at 4-5.
The momentum shifted immediately, and Henin-Hardenne never looked back, earning a crucial break with a blistering forehand return and holding serve to love to edge a 50-minute opener. You expected Henin-Hardenne to eventually – surely, inevitably – run out of gas, but it was Clijsters who blinked first in the second set, as Henin-Hardenne reeled off nine of the final 10 games for a remarkable 7-5, 6-1 triumph to become the first Belgian to win a US Open singles title.
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