Maybe it's a futile exercise with so much time having passed, but I wanted to acknowledge the women's US Open final before closing the door on the 2008 Grand Slam seasons(s). If nothing else, it's an appropriate closer, given that the match put the icing on one of the great stories of the year, the competitive rehabilitation of the Williams sisters. As Richard Williams, Serena's father, told anyone willing to listen: "I think this title meant more to Serena than any title she's ever won." This was one of those happy times when Richard felt no need to obfuscate. We were all left free to savor and appreciate the fact that Serena, now 27, was still capable of - literally - jumping for joy.
A few moments after she performed those astonishing victory leaps, I recalled something Andy Roddick had told me in the winter of 2006. At the time, Venus and Serena were getting roughed up by the media, and Roddick said he thought the treatment was unfair - the girls, he said, had been playing tennis for all of their lives, including a decade spent on the pro tour. He had seen, firsthand, how hard they had worked, long before they slashed their way into the spotlight. He felt that if they left the game tomorrow, they didn't owe it - or their own potential - a dime.
It wouldn't make much sense to try to reprise Serena's final , or those four blown second-set points by Jelena Jankovic. Had she converted any of those, anything might have happened, but I don't that "anything" would have (other than the women producing their first three-set final since 1995), for two reasons:
1 - This was Serena Williams' tournament to lose, and after she survived the quarterfinal with her sister Venus, and it seemed pretty clear that she wasn't going to lose it.
2 - Jankovic is, at heart, a flirt. Whether or not this is true of her in a social, girl-meets-boy sense, I don't really know. But as a tennis player, she seems happy to play the moth dancing around the flame of greatness - if that's the right word - without ever risking getting her pretty wings burned. She has flirted with breakthroughs of various kinds, in the late stages of Grand Slam events, even in her rivalry with her countrywoman Ana Ivanovic, only to change her mind and pull back at the last moment.
Jankovic has improved greatly as a player and is now one of that select WTA group: former no.1 players. But would you agree that she always seems to get where she's going through a back door? Oh, she'll approach the front door, maybe even put her finger on the buzzer; but at the last moment she runs off before anyone can answer, then sneaks around the back and ultimately finds a way to get inside.
At the risk of sounding sexist, there's something girlish and fickle about all this; Jankovic seems to prefer going at things sideways, rather than head-on. The problem for her is that, all other things being equal, you can't win a major any way but directly - which may be why, for all of her accomplishments, she has yet to achieve that landmark. The woman who spanked Jankovic in the final is, in this regard, her opposite number. Serena seems to know nothing but "head-on", despite all of the coyness and/or opacity she can muster when she's called to account for a full frontal assault that goes awry.
The final was very much a game of cat and mouse, and while the mouse often wins in the cartoons, in reality the cat almost always prevails. But it's pretty easy to suspend your disbelief in a stadium dominated by two massive Jumbotrons, loud rock music on changeovers, and a crowd that seems to enjoy nothing more than staring at either of the giant video screens, perhaps hoping that their own visages will appear there. Hail, even Jankovic couldn't resist that, and just in case you were wondering, I couldn't either. I was mesmerized by the crowd shots and especially enjoyed it when people danced for the lens. A few times, when the crowd-cam focused on an attractive couple, I found myself thinking, "I sure hope that's the guy's wife!"
Anyway, I found it revealing when, in her post-match presser, Jankovic suggested that she ought to get an Oscar statuette: "You know what? You know, I got the (runner-up) trophy here (alongside me), and you know what I was thinking? Because you guys, or the commentators, said all that stuff about drama and all that, I should have gotten an Oscar for all this drama throughout the week. Despite, you know, getting a trophy, I should have gotten, you know, a trophy for the acting - I think I've done a great job.'"
Now the interesting thing about this is that I'm not at all sure that Jelena was kidding, and far be it from me to call her out on it. She was so aware of how to play the mouse that Lee Strasberg might have been whispering from his grave: Don't just act like a mouse, Jelena, be the mouse. . . I thought Jankovic's bang-up job helped make the final one of the more entertaining and, well, charismatic matches we've seen in a long time.
But let's not leave the cat out of the equation, here, because she presented the perfect contrast to Jankovic's insolent mouse.On the one side, you had a Grand Slam debutante in a pretty yellow dress, unable to resist checking out her own comely self on the big screen every time the chance was presented. It was appallingly or appealing narcissistic, depending on your frame of mind. Personally, I found it somewhere between hilarious and charming. Jelena said of the habit: "Oh, I keep watching, because you go to serve and you see your big face up there.You cannot help it to look up. No, I think they should turn it off, you know. I cannot focus, because I keep looking at it. . . You watch straight, and then your eyes just go up, because you know there's something going up on top."
Okay, does anybody really believe she really wanted the thing turned off?
On the other side, you had a player who was absolutely uninterested in how she looked on the big screen. Serena was almost militaristically focused. She was the truculent, seasoned champion, determined not to get rattled by the feints and deceptions of her clever little quarry, or to get sucked into the sheer fun of it all. It was a wise, disciplined decision that spoke volumes about her purposefulness. You felt that Serena couldn't care less about the statuette when the US Open trophy was on the line. I found that particularly noteworthy, given how often I've slagged her for her seeming infatuation with the Hollywood crowd. For two hours and four minutes - longer than many three-set women's finals, and considerably longer than Roger Federer's triumph over Andy Murray in the men's final - Serena demonstrated that she still cares about tennis more than anything else in the world. Or, if not tennis, exactly, then the hot flame of competition.
In truth, each woman played to type, and the result was as appealing and comprehensive a contrast as anyone could hope to observe. For a while there in the second set, it looked as if the classic confrontation might have a surprise ending, too. But Jankovic played as if the process were more important than the result (an attitude that in other contexts will serve her well), while Serena played solely for the result. Perhaps that helps explain the valiant tennis when she was down all those set points, and the way her nerve - and legs and lungs - held up under the strain added four more footnotes to her bibliography as a nonpareil competitor.
You'd be hard put to call this a "happy" ending, because in every tennis match the ending must be half-happy, half-sad. But it seemed a satisfying and appropriate conclusion that conveyed some essential truths about cats and mice. But, just as in all those cartoons, the mouse will live to fight another day.