- The Washington Times - Saturday, September 6, 2008

— Serena Williams wound up and smacked a shot directly at Dinara Safina early in the second set of their U.S. Open semifinal.

The ball hit Safina near her shoulder, ending the point, and she quickly turned her back to the net, muttering as she walked away, ignoring Williams’ attempts to apologize.

Not much later Friday, Williams tried again to say “Sorry,” except this time both players were standing at the net after the American wrapped up a 6-3, 6-2 victory. Now Williams can take aim at a third championship at Flushing Meadows and ninth Grand Slam title overall.

It’s her first U.S. Open final since 2002, when she beat older sister Venus. This time, they met in the quarters, and Venus offered advice about facing Safina, then sat in the stands Friday cheering. The siblings’ parents, who also serve as their coaches, were there, too, after skipping the all-Williams match.

“I was thinking to myself, ‘OK, if you’re going to beat your sister, you have to go all the way,’” said their mother, Oracene Price.

Next up for Williams: Jelena Jankovic.

“Overall, she’s, I think, the strongest player on the tour, together with her sister,” said the second-seeded Jankovic. “Nobody has the power that they have. We cannot compare.”

Jankovic eliminated Olympic gold medalist Elena Dementieva 6-4, 6-4. It will be Williams’ 12th Grand Slam final, and Jankovic’s first. In addition to the silver trophy at stake, the winner will rise to No. 1 in the rankings next week.

The final is scheduled for Saturday night, but forecasts calling for day-long rain prompted tournament organizers to announce contingency plans that could include postponing the match until Sunday.

“I’m ready to play tomorrow. Hopefully we can,” Williams said. “If not, I’ll be ready for Sunday, Monday, Tuesday - doesn’t matter.”

She got off to a shaky start against Safina, the younger sister of 2000 U.S. Open men’s champion Marat Safin. Broken in her first service game, Williams fell behind 2-0, but she won seven of the next eight games, eventually doing a much better job than Safina of dealing with wind that gusted at over 20 mph.

Safina wound up with 41 unforced errors, and she repeatedly rolled her eyes or shook her head or shouted at herself in English or Russian, much the way her brother does. A few points after being pelted by the ball, Safina hit her fifth double-fault of the match and yelled, “I hate the wind!” Two points after that, Safina pushed a backhand long and Williams broke to lead 2-1 in the second set.

Jankovic, meanwhile, lost eight of the first nine points and fell behind 2-0 and 4-2. But as Dementieva became more tentative and more erratic, Jankovic reeled off five consecutive games to claim the first set and a 1-0 edge in the second.

Jankovic also trailed by a break at 3-2 in the second set, before coming back again. She got plenty of help - 42 of the 66 points Jankovic won came from unforced errors by the fifth-seeded Dementieva.

Jankovic entered the match with an 0-4 record in major semifinals, including losses at this year’s Australian Open and French Open. But she kept tracking down balls, running along the baseline and stretching her racket, extending points until Dementieva missed.

Several times, Jankovic wound up doing the splits at the end of a point. She sometimes would bend over to catch her breath between points, or stop to chat with spectators. When she got to set point in the first with Dementieva serving, Jankovic drew a time violation warning from chair umpire Lynn Welch for pausing to wipe away sweat with a towel.

The turning point might have come a little earlier, with Dementieva up 4-2 and love-30 on Jankovic’s serve. Two more points, and Dementieva would have served for the opening set.

Instead, Dementieva missed three service returns, and Jankovic’s backhand winner ended a 21-stroke point and the game. Dementieva began the next game by double-faulting, and eventually was broken when a 67 mph serve put her on the defensive.

“Mentally, I feel I’m a lot stronger, because I really believe in myself. I really want to do this, and it’s about time for me to make that step forward to break that barrier,” Jankovic said. “I want to win a Grand Slam, and this is why I came here.”

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