Given the wild swings of fortune Jennifer Capriati has weathered in a tennis career that began much too soon, it almost warranted pity when the 2004 French Open draw was unveiled, mapping out her impossible road to the title.
Not just one but both Williams sisters stood in her path to the final. Awaiting her there, in all likelihood, would be the French national heroine Amelie Mauresmo, buoyed by the home-court crowd.
Serendipity intervened in Tuesday's quarterfinals, bouncing Venus Williams 28 minutes after Capriati vanquished younger sister Serena. Mauresmo fell hours later.
But on Thursday, her path clear of all formidable obstacles, Capriati utterly collapsed against a slender Russian with a cream-puff serve, falling to Anastasia Myskina, 6-2, 6-2.
Capriati's uninspired semifinal performance left her coach baffled but made history half a world away, ensuring the first all-Russian final in a Grand Slam tournament. No Russian woman has won a Grand Slam title, and the honor will now go to either sixth-seeded Myskina or her childhood friend, ninth-seeded Elena Dementieva. Dementieva advanced to Saturday's women's final with a 6-0, 7-5 defeat of Argentina's Paola Suarez, the 14th seed, earlier in the day at Roland Garros.
Quipped former Russian touring pro Olga Morozova, now Dementieva's coach, who beamed with pride over the achievement: "You were writing about, 'The Russians are coming!' for how many years? You asked; we did it!"
While a boon for Russian pride, Thursday's semifinals were deflating for women's tennis, with both matches riddled with ragged, sloppy play. Nerves were the common thread of shaky performances by Suarez and the two victors. The Suarez-Dementieva match included 17 double faults.
"I wasn't trying to be perfect on the court today," explained Dementieva, who committed nine. "I was trying to win, no matter what. And I did."
As for what ailed Capriati, Coach Heinz Gunthardt said: "I don't know, to tell you the truth. . . . Maybe she was so occupied with herself; I'm not sure she knew what was going on out there."
Instead of looking in the mirror for answers, Capriati blamed Myskina's strategy, which relied on varying the pace of her serves and strokes, for tripping her up.
"She obviously came out trying to play a little differently, totally just throwing me off my rhythm completely," said Capriati, the seventh seed. "I was expecting Myskina to come out and, you know, play the normal game."
The tactic was shrewd from Myskina's perspective. But Capriati's anemic response, coming on the heels of the uncharacteristically poor play of the Williams sisters earlier in the week, left the world's most prestigious clay-court tournament without a marquee name on the women's side. Worse still, neither of Thursday's women's semifinals produced memorable shot-making, courageous effort or the gritty sort of performance that mints stars for the future.
It was here at Roland Garros that Capriati became such a star, blasting her way into the semifinals of the 1990 French Open just two months after her 14th birthday. Burnout derailed her once-charmed career. But when Capriati regained her fight, Roland Garros was among the first venues to embrace her, rewarding her with the 2001 French Open title.
Capriati held a 5-1 career record against Myskina, and few expected the 130-pound Russian to mount much resistance Thursday. In truth, she didn't need to because Capriati defeated her own cause, spraying forehands well beyond the baseline time and again.
It wasn't that Capriati lacked patience during the rallies, which is the classic undoing of Americans on the slow, red clay. She was just so error-prone that points ended before either player developed a rhythm.
While Capriati's feet seemed glued to the surface, Myskina skittered around the court like a mosquito in pursuit of the ball. Sometimes she answered with flat, powerful strokes; sometimes she lofted powder-puff balls.
Myskina's serve was hardly intimidating, and her second serve was so slow -- roughly 65-70 mph -- it crawled over the net. But against Capriati, who seemed unable to move her feet, Myskina's serve became a weapon.
Capriati's best chance to claw her way back in contention came in the fifth game of the second set, in which she managed two break points on Myskina's serve. But after four deuces, she fired a service return in the net, then drilled a forehand into the net to fall behind, 2-3.
"I mean, that's the way sports is," Capriati said. "I mean, when it's not there, it's not there."
French Open Notes: Twins Bob and Mike Bryan fell short in their bid to defend their 2003 French Open men's doubles title, falling to Michael Llodra and Fabrice Santoro of France, 7-5, 3-6, 6-3. Their loss, combined with Capriati's ouster, leaves 47-year-old Martina Navratilova and 30-year-old Lisa Raymond to carry the American banner at Roland Garros. They face the second-seeded Russian duo of Svetlana Kuznetsova and Elena Likhovtseva in Friday's semifinals.