WIMBLEDON, ENGLAND -- Yesterday's first Wimbledon women's semifinal was neatly played on a plain canvas and with all the emotions buried safely under the white dresses and polite smiles.
Third-seeded Justine Henin-Hardenne, wearing her traditional skirt and shirt and just a watch as jewelry, won a tidy 6-4, 7-6 (4) victory over her Belgian compatriot, second-seeded Kim Clijsters, who wore an unadorned white dress.
Henin-Hardenne is now one win away from holding at least one of each of the four major tennis championships. She has already won an Australian Open, a U.S. Open and three French Opens. Only 10 women have swept the four. In her way is top-seeded Amelie Mauresmo of France.
Mauresmo's trip to the finals came after 2 hours, 13 minutes of angst and grunts, shrieks and sighs, brilliantly stroked lobs, sharply struck volleys, dizzily skittering forehands that seemed aimed for courts outside the grounds and fluttering serves that didn't have enough oomph to reach the net.
It was Mauresmo, who favors tattoos and chains, against Maria Sharapova, who models a new pair of dangling earrings and glittering necklaces for every match. Finally, Mauresmo, who turned 27 Wednesday and whose reputation is that of an athlete with plenty of ability and not enough nerve, conquered 2004 champion Sharapova, 6-3, 3-6, 6-2.
Mauresmo advanced to her first Wimbledon final after being in the semifinals four times. Henin-Hardenne, who has now won her 13th straight Grand Slam match, is in her second. She won the French Open in May and made it to the Australian Open final in January. There, Henin-Hardenne quit while losing, 6-1, 2-0, to Mauresmo. Henin-Hardenne, who blamed an upset stomach, was criticized for not finishing the match and letting Mauresmo publicly celebrate her first major title.
Yet Mauresmo harbors no hard feelings about Henin-Hardenne's behavior in Melbourne.
"I think it's good to play again," Mauresmo said. "She probably feels very happy about it also, to have the opportunity to have revenge after the final of Australia."
Henin-Hardenne, 24, who has beaten Clijsters the past five times they have played in majors, said Australia "was far away from now. I want to think about myself and another opportunity to win another Grand Slam. I hope we can both be in our best shape and show good tennis to the crowd."
At the end of yesterday's match, Mauresmo gave in to a leap of joy accompanied by a whoop of relief when she watched a Sharapova forehand land long. It was the second match point Mauresmo had and everybody who was watching on Centre Court or talking on television was nervously recounting Mauresmo's past big failures, especially the one in the second set.
That was when Mauresmo led, 6-3, 3-1, and had Sharapova in a 0-40 hole as the 19-year-old served.
But Sharapova won a point with a serve and volley, another when Mauresmo pushed a forehand into the net and another when Mauresmo sailed a forehand long. After saving the three break points Sharapova held her serve and was down 2-3 instead of 1-4. About 15 minutes later, Sharapova had won the second set and Mauresmo trudged off the court, allegedly to take a bathroom break, more likely to relocate her nerve.
"I was so tight in the second set," Mauresmo said. "I was thinking about getting to the finals here, finally, fourth try for me. I was so relieved at the end, to be able to come back stronger in the third set and change momentum."
Henin-Hardenne has now won eight of the past 11 matches she has played against Clijsters. Clijsters, from the Flemish-speaking part of Belgium and Henin-Hardenne, from the French part, have never been good friends and after the match the two exchanged a lukewarm handshake at the net.
It was how Henin-Hardenne played her 90-minute semifinal - with little emotion but with extreme care. On every major break point and game point, Henin-Hardenne conjured up clever volleys or deceptively difficult serves.
"I personally felt for the last few matches that I played, this has been the best one I played against her," Clijsters said. "I'm happy with that. ... She always makes you go for the extra shot and always makes you go for that line."
Too often Clijsters missed the line. Henin-Hardenne almost always hit it.
Note -- Martina Navratilova will have to be content remaining tied with Billie Jean King for most overall Wimbledon championships at 20. Navratilova, who turns 50 in October, said this would be her last Wimbledon, and yesterday she and women's doubles partner Liezel Huber completed a darkness-delayed 4-6, 6-4, 6-0 loss to Yan Zi and Zheng Jie of China. Later, Navratilova and mixed doubles partner Mark Knowles were eliminated by Andy Ram and Vera Zvonareva, 7-5, 6-1.
Diane Pucin writes for the Los Angeles Times.