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Can Capriati keep streak alive?

6/29/2004

WIMBLEDON, England -- She lost only three games to her fourth-round opponent at Wimbledon. She had set a tournament record with a sizzling 126 mile-an-hour serve. Still, Serena Williams wasn't impressed.

"I really didn't think I played well," she said, almost laconic in her post-match news conference. "I thought I wasn't moving. I wanted to come in a little more, just move the ball around a little more. I don't know ..."

Williams paused.

"I guess I can't complain too much, huh?"

If Tuesday's match was a yawner -- and it was -- Williams certainly can look forward to Wednesday when they lead off play at 7 a.m. ET on Centre Court.

The No. 1-seeded Williams defeated and demoralized 16-year-old Frenchwoman Tatiana Golovin 6-2, 6-1 in 55 minutes. The victory set up a familiar and compelling matchup, something that has been lacking on the women's side this fortnight. When No. 7 seed Jennifer Capriati handled No. 10 seed Nadia Petrova 6-4, 6-4, the pairing was set.

Fifteen times they have thrashed through the cannon fodder of the early rounds, only to find each other standing on the other side of the net. Now, it will happen again for the 16th time, the sixth meeting in a Grand Slam tournament. They will both hit the ball as hard as they can and the winners and unforced errors will mount. Maybe they should start affixing Roman numerals to these things: Williams-Capriati XVI.

In the fractured world of women's tennis, this is the enduring rivalry of the moment. The first six questions of Capriati's news conference involved Williams, not the match she had just played.

"It's just about me playing the ball out there," Capriati said. "It's never been about the person. I never really -- that kind of stuff about aura and mystique and personality -- it just never really plays a part."

Williams holds a 9-6 advantage in previous matches, but Capriati recently ended an 0-for-8 streak. She defeated Williams 6-4, 6-4 in the semifinals at Rome in May. She followed it up with a muscular 6-3, 2-6, 6-3 victory in the quarterfinals of the French Open. Underlining the passion and effort Capriati poured into those grudge matches is the fact that she lost the next match in each case, to Amelie Mauresmo and Anastasia Myskina, respectively.

Williams and Capriati do not, they both said for the record, hate each other. They both claim to have mutual respect for each other. Based on their warm embrace after the match at Roland Garros, this seems to be the truth. Perceptions that they don't like each other, they said, came from comments by a broadcaster several years ago.

"I never had a problem with Jennifer," Williams said. "I know it was a particular commentator, for a fact, an American commentator lady that said, 'You can just see that they don't like each other.'

"She can hit any ball at any spot, and just make it. She's a really good athlete."

Said Capriati: "When we come to the same work environment, we're seeing each other all the time, so there's no need to be hostile or have animosity towards each other. We're not like the best of friends, but we're not like enemies, either."

Capriati said her two recent victories over Williams gave her confidence but, to be fair, Williams is just starting to regain her form after missing nearly eight months due to knee surgery last August. She didn't return to the court until March, where she won at Miami, winning all six of her matches. Wimbledon is only her sixth tournament of the year, but her match record is now a sterling 20-3.

"I think I can only pretty much beat myself these days," Williams said. "For the first time, I'm really feeling well, physically. And so I'm almost at that stage where the way I lose is just to beat myself."

"The last couple of times, I took advantage maybe of her not playing that much tennis, and maybe not playing as well, me being more focused," Capriati said.

Williams has several sources of motivation to draw upon.

For starters, she is the two-time defending Wimbledon champion. She's looking for the first three-peat since Steffi Graf (1991-93). After sister Venus' rude departure in the second round, there is family dignity to uphold, as well. Venus already has gone home to Florida, but if Serena doesn't win here, it would be the first time since 1998 that one of them didn't hold a Grand Slam title.

After Serena Williams hit her record serve -- only one mile-an-hour off her sister Venus' all-time fastest record, set in 1998 in Zurich -- the number posted on the radar readout on Centre Court, and Williams said, "Whoa!"

When Capriati was informed that Williams had set a Wimbledon record -- four miles an hour faster than the previous mark -- she did not seem impressed.

"I mean, it really doesn't matter," Capriati said, flashing a cryptic smile. "Maybe the radar's off."

Greg Garber is a senior writer at ESPN.com.