Capriati: She had a vendetta

WIMBLEDON, England -- Serena Williams was still breathing hard moments after her quarterfinal victory here on Wednesday, sweat glistening on her forehead. Wide-eyed, she stopped briefly for a BBC interviewer.

"I was very surprised," Williams said, looking the part. "It's a good moment for me in my career."

Indeed, when the history of Wimbledon is written, her searing 6-1, 6-1 victory against Jennifer Capriati will be viewed as the moment of critical mass when Williams returned to form after missing eight months following knee surgery. Williams, a ruthless perfectionist, was very nearly technically perfect; Wednesday's match required a scant 45 minutes.

The No. 1 seed seems poised to win her third straight title at the All England Club, something only eight women have done -- Steffi Graf, Martina Navratilova, Billie Jean King and Maureen Connolly are the most recent -- in this tournament that goes back to 1884.

Afterward, Capriati seemed baffled, too.

"She just played too good," she said.

Was she surprised?

"No," Capriati said tersely.

This highly anticipated collision, like so many NFL contests with Roman numerals, was an anticlimactic blowout. In 15 previous meetings, Capriati's weakest effort was winning nine games, and that was in their first match, more than five years go. In Williams-Capriati XVI, the stunning total was two.

Williams now meets No. 4 seed Amelie Mauresmo, a 6-0, 5-7, 6-1 winner against No. 9 Paola Suarez, in Thursday's semifinals.

For the first time since her injury, Williams looked like her supreme self. Williams' serve was indomitable. Her muscular two-handed backhand, particularly on service returns, was lethal. Capriati, the No. 7 seed and a three-time Grand Slam champion, won her first service game of the match, then lost the last six.

"I don't think I had much of a chance to get into the match and play," Capriati said. "I was just feeling so much pressure from her coming off the baseline, the serve. Her game plan was to tee off on everything -- and she was on -- not to let me into it at all."

Capriati had won the last two matches, at Rome and Paris earlier this year, but after her fourth-round match here she acknowledged that she might have caught Williams at less than her best.

"Beating her the last two times," Capriati said, "she had a vendetta."

Their third meeting in less than eight weeks confirmed her observation.

In retrospect, the match was won in the third game. On the fifth deuce, Williams hit a phenomenal service return, a sharply angled forehand that Capriati could only scrape into the net. On the fifth break point, Capriati collapsed with a double fault. Williams had a 2-1 advantage that was never, ever threatened.

Afterward, Capriati had a curious admission. Talking about the media buildup over her rivalry with Williams, she said, "When everybody's talking about it so much, it's very hard to go out there and just completely focus on tennis. You know, it's not like I can walk around with earplugs in my ears.

"I mean it does add more tension. Some people like it, some people don't."

Put Capriati in the latter category.

"Maybe if you wouldn't talk about it so much, it would have been a better match."

Williams, who clearly enjoys the big stage, said she was oblivious to the pre-match hype.

"I'm pretty much ignorant to it," Williams said. "I haven't read one article since I've been here about myself. I just really try to focus mostly on me ... because that's most important."

The assembled reporters, fascinated with Capriati's analysis, pressed her.

"From the first press conference, it's like, you know, already talking about the quarterfinal match," she said. "It's like, you know, you shouldn't. Each match at a time.

"But that's the way the press is. There's nothing you can do about it."

So, a reporter continued, you're saying you personally have a hard time?

"We can drop it now," Capriati said, tersely. "We can drop it."

Williams, too, has been hearing some hard questions lately. Does her fashion design work interfere with tennis? Would she rather win an Oscar or a Grand Slam? What ever happened to the invincibility of the Williams sisters?

The answer might be as simple as her left knee, the one that underwent surgery on Aug. 1, not long after she won Wimbledon.

"It's been a really hard 12 months for me," Williams said. "Coming back to Wimbledon, I just really, really am feeling really good for the first time since I've been back."

But how does she really feel?

"That's what I'm most excited about," she continued. "I'm bending for balls, and I'm not having any pain -- I'm not even worried about feeling any pain. I'm running without a doubt in my mind."

Greg Garber is a senior writer at ESPN.com.