The women’s round of 16 concluded last night at the US Open, with a win by Number One seed Amelie Mauresmo over the unseeded Serena Williams. We’ve left the early blow-out matches behind, now the women are getting down to the good stuff.
For Serena Williams, we can say she at least got her finger back into the pie with this tournament. She didn’t deserve to win this match though. She advanced farther than I would have thought she could go, given her spotty play this year and her lack of conditioning and match play. Whether she advanced because some of the old powerful Serena remains, or whether she advanced because the women are typically weaker in the early stages of tournaments than the men, it is difficult to say. Probably both ends were working here. But it is good to see Serena back. Losing this match should be the good swift kick in that rather oversized derriere that could do her good.
Her mind at least is still into competing, even if her body can’t quite keep up yet. On a number of points during her match with Amelie Mauresmo, the physical effort of running balls down cost Serena dearly. Even a week at Nick Bollettieri’s place in Florida before the Open could not fill in the gaps quickly enough in Serena’s conditioning. I found myself saying, “If she were lighter she would get there more easily,” or “She wouldn’t be breathing so hard” if she were in better shape. As it was, Serena seemed to move pretty well, but it cost her aerobically.
Serena appeared to be playing at about three-quarter speed throughout. She wasn’t crushing the ball like the Serena of old. This is not meant as a criticism. You would expect her to just try and keep the ball in play and see what opens up and not be in such a rush to pull the trigger. Was she hoping she was still facing the old Amelie? The player who would implode under the weight of expectations upon her? After all, Serena practically owns Amelie. Their record is 9-1 before the match last night. If Serena’s game and conditioning could not give her confidence, that record was a friendly reminder that hey, maybe she could eek the win out after all, conditioning be damned.
But on this night, Amelie kept it together perfectly. Conditioning did matter. Amelie covered the court well, came in to net at the right times and kept herself focused mentally when it mattered. The contrast was striking: Amelie is as trim and tanned and fit as we have ever seen her; Serena looks chunky. Do you suppose Serena stared over the net and thought to herself, “I want to look like my old self again?” She could. She is not that far away from it, because anything Serena puts her mind to, she can do. Maybe playing Amelie – and winning the second set in a 6-0 blowout – should inspire Serena. Maybe next time she’ll put in a full month at Nick’s place.
On the other hand Jelena Jankovic of Serbia has been racing through her draw with nothing but inspiration. She polished off two unknown players in the early rounds, then took serious aim at the seeds, climbing over Vaidisova(#9) in three sets, Kuznetsova(#7) in three sets, and today she took care of Elena Dementieva(#5) in a shockingly fast (one hour and two minutes) straight setter, 6-2, 6-1. She is the first woman to reach the quarterfinals here.
For Dementieva, the curse of that wretched serve continues. She was broken in every one of her service games. Ouch. Usually though Dementieva can still win matches. But today she faced a youngster who was not going to let that serve go unpunished. Jankovic played too well off the ground. Her opponent could have served brilliantly and it probably would not have mattered anyway. Elena was off and Jelena was on. It was one of those days where one player is “in the zone” and you’re not.
Jankovic hits a beautiful two-handed backhand up the line. It is practically her signature shot, and Dementieva saw lots of it today, from the first game, which Jankovic won with that backhand up the line. They traded breaks early, and that was the end of that. Jankovic whipped through her service games until the end of the first set, when she gave one of her many breaks back. It took her several tries before she closed the first set out, 6-2, on her serve, requiring three set points before Jankovic closed the deal.
The second set brought more of the same for Dementieva, whose only response to the depth, pacing and consistency of Jankovic’s shots was to try and outhit her. But it was the Serb who was going for more angles, coming into net when she saw her opportunity, and just outsteadying the normally very steady Russian. Her backhand went away today.
Only at the end of each set did Dementieva seem to really mount an effort and get a handle on all those unforced errors, taking her opponent to several deuces before the ducks fell into place. Serving for the match up 5-1, Jelena Jankovic on her fourth match point finally coaxed a forehand error from Dementieva and she is into her first Grand Slam semi-final. Davenport or Henin-Hardenne would be her opponent. She has an 0-3 record against Davenport, and an 0-1 against Justine. The scores, though, were close.
For Elena Dementieva, the curse of being one of the best female players to never win a Slam also continues. She should be flown to a desert island with a million tennis balls and one court. She stays there and work on her serve until she’s ready. Only then do we let her off that island.