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Kurt Streeter

Russian couldn't strike the right tone

September 06, 2008|Kurt Streeter

NEW YORK -- Kerplunk.

This sound, or something quite like it, came Friday from Elena Dementieva's yellow racket when the most important moments arrived.

It was the sound of tennis balls clumsily hit. The sound of them arriving on the racket too far from the center of the strings. The sound of them speeding off uncontrollably, zooming past the baseline or toward the net.

Dementieva was my dark-horse pick to walk from here clutching the first-place hardware. She had just won gold in Beijing. And during every match at Flushing Meadows, she'd been a ground-stroking riflewoman, deadeye enough to make Sarah Palin blush.

Throughout this tournament's first dozen days, I've admired the angular, 26-year-old Russian's bedrock resolve. How she has bounced back repeatedly from a career of hard-luck defeat. The way she seems to have conquered an ugly duck serve. Her sheer, hard-hitting, machine-like play.

But there's a difference between being good and great, and we saw it in these semifinals.

Good (well, partly) is what we saw in Dementieva's semifinal match, a 1-hour 24-minute affair against Jelena Jankovic, the limber Serb.

Great you saw in a singular performer: Serena Williams, who came to the court when Dementieva and Jankovic were done. Of the women in this tournament's final four, Williams was the only one with a Grand Slam title. In fact, she has eight. Friday, watching her beat Dinara Safina with the loss of only five games, there was nothing to make you think Williams won't finish this tournament with nine.

I expected Williams to win, just as in the final I expected she would meet Dementieva. The Russian had played every set at Flushing Meadows crisply, efficiently and powerfully. In the semis, she began that way, breaking serve straight off, taking an early lead, looking great.

And then, as she has so often in her career, she collapsed. Usually, she is done in by her serve. This time, the serve was OK, but the rest of her game was not.

First she missed just enough easy shots to lose her serve and let her opponent even up the initial set. Then, down 5-4 and serving to tie, Dementieva promptly gave away three more points. Kerplunk, kerplunk, kerplunk, first set Jankovic.

Make no mistake, Jankovic deserves her due. All day she was dependable. She ran a bunch, she hustled. Once or twice in a game in tight spots, she produced a winner. But she didn't have to do much more than not choke and play ugly.

That was reserved for Dementieva. The best example came when she was serving, behind 5-4 in the second set, needing to win the game to stay alive. First point, she had a volley that with eyes closed she should have been able to hit. The ball dipped into the net like a sack of rocks. She promptly double-faulted. Then she produced another miss. Two points later, same thing, unforced error. Game, set, match.

Great players end matches this way about as often as a lunar eclipse.

Within an hour Dementieva strolled into the media room, a wide smile on her face. She was calm and cool and told reporters she was tired but "not disappointed at all."

Not disappointed by losing in the semifinals of the U.S. Open, when during the entire affair she had been playing great?

At least twice recently I've written about the difference between present and past, between players now and the long-lost group of greats. I hate to prattle on, but you can bank on this: When Martina Navratilova lost in the semifinals of a tournament like this, there were no smiles. She'd turn immediately into a sour-faced grump for a week.

Now the No. 1 ranking will go to whomever wins this tournament's last match. Jankovic is a good player and a wonderful, warm-the-heart personality. She frequently cracked smiles during Friday's match. She cried at the finish, this being the first time in five tries she had played a Grand Slam semifinal and won.

Today comes the ultimate test.

Somehow Jankovic has managed to outfox Williams three of the six times they've played. Sometimes, the counterpuncher gives the heavy swinger fits.

It will be mighty surprising if that happens here. For one thing, Williams has the experience of winning in New York. For another, when she turns into a ball and makes contact, rarely will come what is in tennis a most ugly, ear-rattling sound: kerplunk.

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Kurt Streeter can be reached at kurt.streeter@ latimes.com.

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