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Bill Dwyre

She's Bright Spot on a Cloudy Day

September 06, 2006|Bill Dwyre

NEW YORK — It is untrue that nothing happened at the U.S. Open on Tuesday. Jelena Jankovic won a match before the rains came.

The gods must like her. It's hard not to.

This 21-year-old from Serbia is bright, quirky, articulate and is starting to show she can really play. Eight more Grand Slam titles and she'll be Andre Agassi.

She played the first match on the main court. It was overcast, sprinkling a bit and off the spectator radar at an event where something is always going on but seldom with any buzz until at least 2 p.m. So, dozens were in the stands for the Great Carson Rematch, the repechage of two players who got to the final of the JP Morgan Chase Open at the Home Depot Center in late August.

Much more was at stake this time, as Jankovic, already further along in a major tournament than ever before, took the court against the higher-ranked, more experienced, more successful Elena Dementieva of Russia, who beat her at Carson in three sets. To the winner went a spot in the semifinals of the U.S. Open.

The 19th-seeded Jankovic won, routing fourth-seeded Dementieva in a 6-2, 6-1 stunner that was made worse for the Russian when she failed to win even one game on her serve, ever weak and inconsistent as it may be.

"I wouldn't believe that," says Jankovic, when asked about the seven service breaks.

There are several other things Jankovic probably does not believe right now, including seeing her name in the semifinals, awaiting the result of Tuesday's rained-out quarterfinal involving top-seeded Justine Henin-Hardenne and 10th-seeded Lindsay Davenport.

Not long ago, Jankovic would have been thrilled with just winning. She began the year by losing in the second round of the Australian Open and then losing her next nine first-round matches. She was the Kansas City Royals of tennis.

"I don't know what was wrong with me," she says now. "I didn't -- I couldn't play. Whenever I got on the court, I didn't have the will to practice, didn't want to play.... I didn't want to win matches.... It was something weird, something I never felt before. I almost quit tennis."

Instead, she won 31 of her next 41 matches, including her fourth-rounder Monday against 2004 U.S. Open champion Svetlana Kuznetsova and, Tuesday, the woman Kuznetsova beat in the '04 final, Dementieva.

The comeback started in May on the clay in Rome. Her mother, Snezana, started traveling with her, she found a way to settle down, and the shots started clipping the lines. Along the way, she beat defending champion Venus Williams at Wimbledon and Serena Williams at Carson, becoming the only player so far this year to beat both sisters.

"I'm so happy right now," Jankovic says.

She also makes it clear that she wants to be more than the one-dimensional personality the tennis tour frequently breeds. To that end, despite the demands of time and travel placed on a tour player, she has found a way to remain an active college student at the University of Megatrend in Belgrade. Both her parents are economists.

She says she is about to finish her second year of general study and has yet to decide on a major. She says she studies on the road, then schedules class time, tutoring and exams when she is at home.

"I don't want to be a typical tennis player, who knows how to hit the forehand and backhand and that's all," she says. "This career is quite short and I think there is life after tennis."

Like everybody else here, she witnessed the start of some life after tennis with the departure of Agassi on Sunday.

"Oh my god, I was crying in the locker room," she says. "He is such a legend. I was having tears in my eyes and I had to go out and play doubles and I had to get my eyes clear. I'm so emotional. I don't like that in myself."

Her opponents don't like other things right now. Like having to play her.

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Bill Dwyre can be reached at bill.dwyre@latimes.com. To read previous columns by Dwyre, go to latimes.com/dwyre.

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