WIMBLEDON, England Up at the net after a stinging approach shot, Serena Williams waited for Jennifer Capriati's weak response to float down.
A simple putaway, right? Not quite. Williams shanked the overhead slam wide.
Nothing came easily for the defending Wimbledon champion or her sister Venus in the quarterfinals Tuesday. Serena lost the opening set against Capriati, and Venus also dropped a set for the first time this fortnight, against Lindsay Davenport.
But by straightening out their strokes and using the game's top serves, the sisters won, moving within one victory each of a sixth all-Williams Grand Slam final. On the other hand, Justine Henin-Hardenne and Kim Clijsters are within one victory each of a second straight all-Belgian Grand Slam final.
''I've been in this position so many times,'' Serena said, ''I have no nerves.''
She beat No. 8 Capriati 2-6, 6-2, 6-3 in a tight match filled with dramatic points, right after 2000-01 champion Venus won the last five games including the final 11 points to oust No. 5 Davenport 6-2, 2-6, 6-1.
In the other quarterfinals, No. 2 Clijsters shrugged off a midmatch bee sting on her stomach to eliminate Silvia Farina Elia 5-7, 6-0, 6-1, while No. 3 Henin-Hardenne topped Svetlana Kuznetsova 6-2, 6-2.
On Thursday, Serena faces Henin-Hardenne, who ended the American's 33-match Slam winning streak en route to the French Open title. No. 4 Venus gets Clijsters, a semifinalist at all 11 tournaments she's played this year and now with a chance to replace Serena at No. 1 in the rankings.
''For Kim and for me,'' Henin-Hardenne said, ''it's going to be difficult, for sure.''
The men's quarterfinals are Wednesday: Andy Roddick vs. Jonas Bjorkman, Roger Federer vs. Sjeng Schalken, Tim Henman vs. Sebastien Grosjean, and Mark Philippoussis vs. Alexander Popp.
It's possible that none of those matches will produce a single baseline rally of the sort Serena and Capriati exchanged over and over during their thriller, hammering the ball off both wings.
''Jennifer came out right off the bat, blowing everything away,'' Serena said. ''I knew I had to raise my level if I wanted to stay in the competition.''
The longest point, in the next-to-last game, went 31 strokes until Serena sent a crosscourt backhand wide with a shriek. Earlier, Serena won a 28-stroke point with a drop volley. Capriati actually held a 13-7 edge in points of 10 or more strokes.
''I didn't win them all, but I definitely enjoyed it,'' Serena said, ''because it gets me really focused for the big players, and I know what I'm up against.''
Capriati said: ''Matches like that, you wish you could play three-out-of-five sets, like the guys, you know?''
That might give her a better chance against Serena, who's won their last eight encounters seven in three sets. Here's how even this match was: Both won 84 points.
Serena had three break points in the second game. But she wiped them out with mistakes, starting a trend: Capriati would extend points, hitting hard all the while, until Serena erred.
By early in the second set, Serena had 20 unforced errors to Capriati's four. They finished 36-11 in that department, while Serena led in winners 28-9.
Capriati claimed the first service break to go up 2-1 thanks to four unforced errors, and got another break for 5-2 when Serena missed two forehands. During that game, a Capriati supporter yelled, ''Finish her!''
The three-time major champion did finish off that set to end Serena's 22-set winning streak at Wimbledon, where she beat big sis in last year's final.
In the second set, Serena faced a break point at 2-2 but won the game with this string: 99 mph ace, 114 mph service winner, forehand winner. A game later, Serena finally converted a break point, on her sixth chance, by ripping a backhand winner down the line.
Serena broke to 2-0 in the third set, helped by Capriati's only double-fault. Cheered on by one of her ''Friends,'' actor Matthew Perry, Capriati never gave up, and earned two break points in the last game. She wasted one by slapping a forehand return into the net, and a short return on the second allowed Serena to line up a crosscourt forehand winner.
''If she plays like she did today, and especially the way she served, it would be pretty hard for anyone to beat her,'' Capriati said.
That's been the case for some time now. Serena won four straight majors, beating Venus in each final, until losing to Henin-Hardenne at Roland Garros. That match left Serena in tears, in part because fans cheered her faults and because of what she considered poor sportsmanship by the Belgian.
Henin-Hardenne also won their previous match, but that was on clay, too.
The Williams sisters are much tougher on grass; Henin-Hardenne's last two Wimbledons ended with losses to Venus in the 2001 final and the 2002 semifinals.
Venus' earliest exit in two years at a major came with a fourth-round upset in Paris, but she's over an abdominal injury and swinging much better.
In beating 1999 champion Davenport for the sixth straight time, Venus conjured up 33 winners, including nine aces.
Davenport, 27, is edging closer to retirement, saying: ''Time's running out.''
About an hour after Serena's victory, the sisters played their third-round doubles match and lost. The defending champions were beaten by Elena Dementieva and Lina Krasnoroutskaya 6-3, 3-6, 7-5, and the match ended with Venus double-faulting.
''We were just a little bit fatigued mentally and a little physically,'' Serena said. ''Just needed a little break.''
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