NEW YORK - Ever since Kim Clijsters arrived at the U.S. Open two weeks ago with the No. 1 ranking, she has been asked if she needs to win a Grand Slam tournament to validate that ranking.
She has said little about it, choosing to let her play speak for her. But yesterday, after embarrassing No. 3 seed Lindsay Davenport, 6-2, 6-3, in 63 minutes, Clijsters said she has been inspired.
"It's been talked about a lot," she said. "And it's really motivated me. I'm very satisfied with the way I've played. This Grand Slam has definitely been the toughest out of all the Grand Slams I've played so far. I've had the toughest opponents, I think, out of all the seeds."
To win the title tonight, Clijsters will have to beat a woman who showed relentless mental and physical strength last night. Whether she has much left for another big match against Clijsters is the question.
No. 2 Justine Henin-Hardenne, a slight and pale, 5-foot-5 player, who, like Clijsters, is a Belgian, out-slugged and outlasted her more strongly built American opponent, No. 6 seed Jennifer Capriati, 4-6, 7-5, 7-6 (4). The match took more than three hours and featured one incredible shot after another.
Henin-Hardenne, with cramps in her left thigh, was two points from defeat 11 times, but kept fighting back. Twice, Capriati served for the match and failed.
When it was over, Capriati, who made seven errors as Henin-Hardenne took a 7-4 decision in the tiebreaker, barely touched her hand at the net and left in obvious disappointment.
"I am so tired," said Henin-Hardenne. "I did everything I had. I was cramping, and it was especially bad on my serve. The final? I don't think too much about the final right now ... but I will come and do the best I can."
Before this Open, Henin-Hardenne had not made it farther than the fourth round here. But last night, she and Capriati, who has never made it to the Open final, played like champions.
The crowd at Arthur Ashe Stadium that went crazy for Capriati when she overcame a 4-1 deficit in the first set and then actually served for the match in the second, found itself cheering for Henin-Hardenne at the finish, in pure appreciation of her talent and courage.
From the beginning of this Open, however, no one has been more dominant than Clijsters, who has methodically dismantled the women's field on her way to the final. She has yet to lose a set.
"Kim is very, very accurate on her ground strokes," said Davenport. "I think she's a very great mover, very great. And she's confident. She's playing great. She's very aggressive when she needs to be, then also very consistent at the important times."
It is Clijsters' first trip to the final here in five appearances. It will be, however, her third Grand Slam final. The other two came at the French Open, where she lost to Capriati in 2001 and to Henin-Hardenne this summer.
Davenport, who won this tournament in 1998, was very disappointed by her performance, even though she credited Clijsters with playing well.
"It's disappointing to come all this way and then do that," said Davenport, who has a nerve problem in the bottom of her foot and had to have a numbing shot before each match here.
"I can handle losing. I'm not afraid of that. But to go out on a day like that. I think, even with Kim playing so well, I could have done a lot of things a lot better."
Davenport went into a funk in the first set, as Clijsters rushed away with the decision. But it wasn't pretty on either side of the net. Clijsters held her first serve and then the two exchanged breaks each of the next five games before Clijsters held again and then broke Davenport one more time for the set.
At that point, Davenport looked all but finished. Her body language spoke volumes. The second set started better, with Davenport finally gaining a hold in her first service game, and she followed that with a break of Clijsters.
But she was broken in Game 4 and, in the process, banged her racket on the court and threw it on back-to-back points. On break point, she stopped running for a reachable lob by Clijsters, guessing - hoping - it would be out. It wasn't.
"The ball was up in the wind and I figured it was out," Davenport said. "But it landed on the line. It's one point of many. I did a lot of worse things out there."
Andre Agassi (1) vs. Juan Carlos Ferrero (3), noon
Andy Roddick (4) vs. David Nalbandian (13), 3 p.m.
TV: Chs. 13, 9
Inside: Agassi outlasts Coria; Ferrero ousts Hewitt. [Page 3c]