September 7, 2008

A Final Upset?

It's funny that Jelena Jankovic was seeded second at this year's U.S. Open and Serena Williams, the far more familiar name, fourth. Jelena's been ranked number one as recently as August (for one glorious week) while Serena hadn't been at the top since 2002 and started the year with a seventh seed in Australia, even though she was the defending champion.

Yet there are few people who would've expected Jankovic to defeat Williams at this year's tournament, despite the fact that the Serbian notched a victory over Serena on a hard court just in January, or even to put up much of a fight.

Serena clearly had experience on her side going into tonight's final. She's older -- twenty-six compared to Jelena's twenty-three. She's been on tour longer, turning pro in 1998 vs. 2001 for Jankovic. She's been in eleven Grand Slam singles matches playing for the championship and come out the victor eight times. Jelena was playing in her first major final.

With the odds stacks so much against Jelena, commentators were saying that the real women's final was played on Wednesday night when Serena took out her sister Venus in straight sets in the quarters.

But the women's championship turned into something much more exciting than I what I expected.

Jelena Jankovic and Serena Williams walked onto Center Court a little past nine p.m. on Sunday night, a day late thanks to a rain delay that wiped out most of Saturday's play. Jankovic got the first break of the match to go up 2-1 in the first set. But Williams immediately broke back. Jelena had a chance to serve for the second set at 5-4, but lost her service game and, soon after, the match. There were eight breaks, serves of 120 miles per hour, two-plus hours of squealing, grunting, screeching and splits (CBS even put up a statistic of how many times the competitors went spread-eagle on the court).

And the number four seed "upset" the second-ranked player in the world in straight sets.

That's the thing about matches like this -- they seldom reflect the true battle that transpired. A mere ten points separated Serena and Jelena, eighty-nine to seventy-nine. The second set lasted 77 minutes. We came dangerously close to a third set -- something that hasn't happened since Steffi Graf beat Monica Seles in 1995. But what goes on the scoreboard is a 6-4, 7-5 romping.

You wouldn't know it from reading the box scores on Monday morning, but it was one of the best women's matches I've seen in a long time.

There was criticism that Jelena acted unprofessional and juvenile after the match when she jokingly questioned how much prize money she won and commented on the "gift" of a number one ranking she gave Serena. But, come on! Serena jumped up and down (and up and down, and up and down) like a five-year-old on a trampoline after her win, a reaction that her sister also had after winning Wimbledon last year. If you can excuse that flagrant behavior, how can you not applaud Jankovic for her sportsmanlike conduct?

Jelena is a phenomenal defensive player and got balls back into play that most pros would be happy to watch sail by them -- she just needs to work on dictating points, if she wants to win the majors. And even though I always root against the Williams' family (did anyone notice that patriarch Richard was wearing a baseball cap with Venus's logo during Serena's match?), the younger sister is obviously deserving of her newly-regained top ranking. I actually enjoyed watching her play tonight, maybe as much for how Jankovic was able to respond to her as for what she was able to do with her racquet herself. For two women who seemed so unevenly matched, I can't imagine any others who were more worthy of being in the final.

In the spirit of sisterhood (and because griping over Andy Murray's win has sapped me of a whole bunch of energy) I congratulate Serena, and Jelena too.

Hope to see more great, powerful, exciting, cheer-provoking play in both of your futures!

Now it's almost midnight and I have to be up in five hours to get ready for my real job. So good night! I'll see you back here after the men's final.

Thanks again for coming!

'Til next time, serve well and play hard!

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