On a day where swirling, gusty winds affected every shot, the fourth-seeded Williams defeated No. 6 Dinara Safina, 6-3, 6-2, and No. 2 Jankovic held her nerve for a 6-4, 6-4 victory over No. 5 Elena Dementieva.
After Williams defeated her older sister Venus in a thrilling 7-6, 7-6 quarterfinal Wednesday, she became the women’s favorite and I think this will prove true. Still, Jankovic can’t be counted out.
Williams moved into the tournament final she last won six years ago by playing to the conditions. She sliced shots at appropriate times and carefully used the power that is her trademark. She hit 16 winners, a number Williams could normally make in a single set, and had only 21 unforced errors. She took full advantage of break-point chances, converting 6 of 9, and she had five double-faults.
Safina, the women’s U.S. Open Series winner and the Roland Garros finalist who has made such a wonderful transition this spring controlling her Marat-like emotions, came apart. Early in the match, she began talking to herself and became the Safina of old. Making 41 unforced errors, she converted only 2 of 6 break-point opportunities and hit six double faults in the 1-hour, 29-minute contest.
Dementieva, the 2004 U.S. Open finalist and Olympic gold medalist, broke serve in the first game and got off to a great start. She took control immediately, forcing Jankovic to run and run. Playing great defense, she got the break back and won four games in a row to take the first set, 6-4.
Once she got a feeling for being in another Grand Slam semifinal (it was the fourth of her career), Jankovic began to relax — so much so she occasionally glanced up at the scoreboard screen on Arthur Ashe Stadium court to watch the replay of a point — while Dementieva became more frustrated. She started talking to herself and later in the match, after almost every error, she looked either to her mother in the stands or her coach, Zeljko Krajan. During one streak, Dementieva had 10 unforced errors to Jankovic's three. By the end, she had 24 winners and made 42 unforced errors. She also had six double faults, but converted 60 percent of her break-point opportunities (3-for-5).
Jankovic’s totals were 13 winners and 22 unforced errors. She had one double fault and took advantage of five of the 10 break points she earned. Defense was key as she repeatedly chased balls down, often doing ballet-like splits in an effort to retrieve shots.
Both matches were challenging because of the conditions and draining emotionally because of all that was at stake. Because she has been in the final of 11 majors, winning eight, and Jankovic is making her first appearance in a Grand Slam tournament final, Williams is my choice to win. I also think it’s important to remember that she has been in the title round in New York three other times.
Because of her experience, Williams will be best able to cope with conditions like the wind. When I played Martina Navratilova in the U.S. Open final in 1981, the wind was twice as bad as it was Friday. I remember how difficult it was to hit accurate passing shots against Martina, who was the best serve-and-volley player in the game. I also remember that lob shots were next to impossible, but somehow I was able to win 1-6, 7-6, 7-6.
Neither Williams nor Jankovic serve and volley, but if there is wind they both will have to make adjustments. They did it very well on Friday. Williams hit some backhands with slice and she took pace off her forehand. She also took speed off her serve. She has so much variety on that shot. Other players have variety, but very few are comfortable hitting different serves in a big match. For Williams, it just isn’t a big deal.
Jankovic moves so well, she can track almost any shot down. She is calm. She doesn’t panic. Just look at what she has done during the year. Just look at the number of times she has lost sets and come back dramatically — they call her the Drama Queen — to win matches. The trouble is, before she played Dementieva, she had been on court 9 hours, 9 minutes and that was longer than any of the other semifinalists. That is exhausting.
I know she wants to prove a point. Jankovic was No. 1 for a week this summer, but she got there without winning a tournament. When Ana Ivanovic, her Serbian countrywoman became No. 1, she did it by winning Roland Garros. Jankovic wants to do the same thing.
Williams was the U.S. Open winner in 1999 and 2002 (and a finalist in 2001). After Venus defeated her in the Wimbledon final, she had one goal — add her own trophy to the Williams’ collection. I think she will — though Jankovic will fight hard — and as a result, become the women’s new No. 1.
Of course, all of this depends on the weather, and rain has been forecast for the next two days. Hopefully, Williams and Jankovic won't have to wait for an opportunity to show just what led them to the final.
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