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U.S. Open is left with a Super Six

Serena Williams and Jankovic will play for No. 1 ranking in women's final, and the men's semifinals have their own intrigue.

September 06, 2008|Chuck Culpepper | Special to the Times

NEW YORK -- What the U.S. Open lacks in charm, it often counterbalances with gravitas, true again this promising tennis weekend.

Only Tropical Storm Hanna's outer rains might disrupt the transcendent matchups, and there's always a chance that even she might take one look at Rafael Nadal and run cowering back to the ocean.

Twelve days of the usual mayhem have seen No. 1 Ana Ivanovic bowing out and wondering, Juan Martin Del Potro finally losing after 23 consecutive wins and sobbing, the Bryan twins claiming a sixth Grand Slam doubles title and hugging, and what's left qualifying as pretty riveting.

With Serena Williams versus Jelena Jankovic, Roger Federer versus Novak Djokovic and Nadal versus Andy Murray, the six players in the men's semifinals and women's final have such distinction that the thinnest resume in the bunch belongs to Murray.

That's the Murray enjoying a breakthrough summer, the Murray who'll rise to No. 4 in the world come next week, the Murray who beat Djokovic to win the ATP Masters Series Cincinnati event, the Murray whose hardcourt comfort and brazen demeanor peg the U.S. Open as the Grand Slam he's most likely to win.

It's the Murray who said he didn't just come for the semifinals and said, "I think how you do in Slams is how you're remembered in tennis."

And it's the Murray of whom his opponent, No. 1 Nadal, conqueror of Murray three times this year including Wimbledon, said, "I'm not playing against a guy who his ranking is 50 and for him being in the semifinals is unbelievable, no? Andy, when I come here, for sure he know he can be in the semifinals and he can win the title, no? . . . So going to be nothing strange for him, no?"

That's the worst they've got left here.

On a women's tour in a tepid year, Williams versus Jankovic for the final Grand Slam rates dreamy only partly because the winner will ascend to No. 1 next week.

It's also the introduction of Jankovic and her ready smile to a Grand Slam final audience after two years spent banging hard on the door and losing in four other semifinals before she finally edged Elena Dementieva, 6-4, 6-4, on Friday and cried.

And it's also the reintroduction of Williams as a mainstay in her second straight Grand Slam final. "I've been saying I feel like I just started again, like I just feel so excited to be out there for every match," she said after a 6-3, 6-2 mastery of both the swirling winds and the world's hottest player since May, Dinara Safina.

Here she stands one win from returning to No. 1 for the first time since the middle of 2003 and, asked if she ever doubted she'd return to the perch, she's saying, "Absolutely not."

"She's a lot more organized now," her sister Isha Price said in the hallway where both greeted singer Anita Baker and Williams asked for a photo. "She's eliminated a lot of stuff out of her life that she no longer has to plan or do."

It reflects in her increasingly fluid movement on the court, against which the rising 22-year-old Safina had no chance, especially with her own jittery errors -- she once hit a second serve that bounced before it hit the net -- and with careful advice Williams apparently received from her sister, Venus, whom she edged in a fine quarterfinal.

"I feel like Venus was playing the best in this tournament," Serena said. "I felt like she had a chance to win, and maybe she even would have won. Obviously I would like to do what I think she would have done. But at the same time, I don't want to put too much pressure on myself."

Said Serena, "I have amazing will."

Said Price, "The joy is there again."

Federer claims likewise even -- or maybe especially -- from the No. 2 spot after 239 weeks at No. 1 that concluded in mid-August. Given his sub-Federer form, great for all other humans, and his Australian Open semifinal loss to Djokovic, many consider Djokovic the favorite, a matter from which Federer derives zero motivation.

"I mean, I guess some players get a kick out of that and want to prove people wrong and stuff," he said. "I mean, I'm not that type of person, you know, to go through life just wanting to, you know, prove myself. I'm past that point, you know. I think that those days were five years ago maybe. Didn't enjoy those times that much. . . . Now I'm in a totally different situation that, you know, nothing really bothers me anymore."

As Federer has climbed back from mononucleosis and sagged by his Herculean standard in a Grand Slam year that actually rates among the best in men's tennis history -- semifinal-final-final -- Djokovic has gone about accruing more huge-point experience.

"The last three matches have been extremely difficult for me, as well mentally, you know, to survive two matches, four sets and one five-setter is very important in these kinds of events," Djokovic said. "I'm maturing more and more. You know, I know what I need to play in the certain moments and important moments."

That rare knack could be said of all the last six.

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