- The Washington Times - Monday, September 8, 2008

NEW YORK | Serena Williams flung her racket aside and jumped for joy, looking like someone who had just won her first Grand Slam title.

Nope. It sure had been a while, though.

Displaying the talent and tenacity that helped her dominate tennis earlier in the decade, Williams outlasted Jelena Jankovic 6-4, 7-5 on Sunday night in a thrill-a-minute match chock full of marvelous strokes and momentum swings to win her third U.S. Open championship and ninth Grand Slam title.

And there was this “added bonus,” as Williams termed it: She returns to No. 1 in the rankings.

As the women met at the net afterward, Williams felt compelled to say to Jankovic, “I’m sorry I got so excited.”

No apology necessary.

Four times a single point from heading to a third set, Williams was simply relentless. She took the final four games and took the title without dropping a set. The closest she came to losing one? In the quarterfinals, when she beat older sister Venus in two tiebreakers.

On this night, Venus was in the guest box, cheering for her sister.

“Serena was a better player tonight,” Jankovic said. “She was just too good tonight.”

It was Williams’ first triumph at Flushing Meadows since 2002, and it guaranteed that the American will lead the rankings Monday for the first time since August 2003 - the longest gap between stints at No. 1 for a woman.

“I’m so excited,” Williams said in a courtside interview. “It is that special because I’ve been working so hard.”

The No. 1 player on the men’s side didn’t have as good a time Sunday. No. 6 seed Andy Murray finished a stunning, rain-interrupted 6-2, 7-6 (5), 4-6, 6-4 victory over Rafael Nadal to reach his first Grand Slam final and stop the top-ranked Nadal’s 19-match winning streak at major tournaments.

Trying to become the first British man to win a major tennis championship since Fred Perry at the 1936 U.S. Open, Murray will face four-time defending champion Roger Federer in the final Monday night.

“He’s got loads of experience in these situations, and it’s something new to me,” Murray said.

The sixth-seeded Murray won the first two sets against Nadal and was down a break at 3-2 in the third when play was suspended Saturday because of Tropical Storm Hanna.

“Tough to sleep,” Murray said.

As should surprise no one, Nadal made a stand Sunday, taking the third set and going ahead 3-1 in the fourth. But Murray took five of the last six games, breaking Nadal twice and ending the Spaniard’s bid to make his first final at the U.S. Open.

Murray never before made it past the quarterfinals at a major and never had defeated Nadal in five previous tries. Nadal, meanwhile, won 54 of his preceding 56 matches and took the titles at the French Open, Wimbledon and Beijing Olympics.

But Murray, the 2004 U.S. Open junior champion, was up to the task this time. He wound up with more than twice as many winners as Nadal 65-32.

Murray won a 22-stroke point with a volley winner to get to match point, leaving Nadal bending over behind the baseline, chest heaving. Then Murray completed the service break to end the match, easily chasing down Nadal’s drop shot and smacking a winner.

“I just had to keep my head down and watch the ball - and that was that,” Murray said. “I didn’t feel particularly nervous.”

Murray immediately turned to his private box, closed his eyes and leaned backward. With the crowd cheering, he threw his two wristbands and white baseball cap into the stands.

During an on-court interview afterward, Murray described himself as “very relieved” to have won and to have reached the title match at his “favorite tournament” - which might draw some winces in the land of Wimbledon.

Others might be star-struck staring across the net at Federer, who will be attempting to win his 13th Grand Slam title while Murray chases his first.

But Murray owns a 2-1 career mark against Federer.

“He’s probably the greatest player ever, so to get the chance to play against him in a Slam final is an honor,” Murray said. “But I’ve played well against him in the past, and hopefully … I’ll do that again [Monday].”

Nadal, meanwhile, was hoping to become only the fourth man in the 40-year Open era to win three consecutive Grand Slam titles, joining Rod Laver, Pete Sampras and Federer. But Nadal has never had as much success on the hard courts of the U.S. Open as on the clay of Roland Garros or the grass of the All England Club.

He beat Federer in the finals at both of those places this year and surpassed him atop the rankings last month.

On Saturday and Sunday, though, Murray exhibited precisely the sort of winner-evaporating defense that Nadal usually employs to wear down opponents.

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