Jankovic, Dementieva aching to win first career Grand Slam title

9/4/2008 - Tennis
Jelena Jankovic has been stretched to the limit but remains on course to win her first career major. Jim McIsaac/Getty Images

NEW YORK -- There is a consensus developing at the U.S. Open that the winner of Friday's second semifinal match between Serena Williams and Dinara Safina ultimately will become champion.

Serena, fresh off her straight-sets victory over sister Venus on Wednesday night, has won the title here twice -- that's two more than any of the other players in the final four has. Safina, who reached the French Open and Olympic finals, has had a breakthrough year.

But look beyond that marquee match, and you have a fascinating undercard matchup between Elena Dementieva and Jelena Jankovic. There is much at stake for them; in some ways, this is a career referendum.

A title here would give either woman the world -- her first Grand Slam title and the WTA's No. 1 ranking. How's that for heady stuff?

"It would be nice to regain the No 1 ranking," Jankovic said, "but I'm playing here to win a Grand Slam, and my goal is to win a Grand Slam. That's what I'm really focusing on."

This is all possible because the women's draw has opened up in extraordinary fashion. At the beginning of the year, you would have penciled in defending champion Justine Henin and 2006 champion Maria Sharapova among the favorites. Ditto for 2004 champion Svetlana Kuznetsova, No. 1-ranked Ana Ivanovic and two-time champion Venus Williams. Well, guess what? None of them reached the semifinals; retirement, injury and the inspired play of others have sent them all to the sideline.

For Dementieva, 26, this might be her best, last opportunity to score a major. The famously fragile Russian is loose and playing with house money after winning the gold medal at the Beijing Olympics.

It was, Dementieva said, the biggest victory of her career, although some people would argue that Olympic tennis is not a significant résumé item.

"In Russia, if you stop anyone on the street and ask what is a Grand Slam, I don't think many people can tell you what it is," Dementieva said. "But everyone knows [the] Olympic Games. There is nothing bigger. There is nothing more important than Olympic Games for an athlete, for a sportsperson."

Dementieva has been to two major finals, at Roland Garros and at the U.S. Open in 2004. She did not show well in Paris, losing to Anasatasia Myskina, then in New York to another fellow Russian, Svetlana Kuznetsova. Dementieva, who has a particularly sunny disposition, took it well -- too well?

"People just come to me and say, 'Oh, I'm happy for you. You're always losing in the final. It's so great that you finally win something big,'" Dementieva said.

"But I never thought about this in that way. I was thinking it was a great experience in French Open, U.S Open. I didn't think it's such a bad result to be in the final of a Grand Slam. I think I was very patient during my career. I was working a lot, and I was very positive. I was able to go through and be a stronger player."

Jankovic, at 23, is three years younger. Still, she aches to win here. Jankovic is feeling the pressure a bit because her two fellow Serbs, Novak Djokovic and Ivanovic, both won their first career Grand Slam titles this season, in Australia and Paris. There is an ominous piece of history, too.

When Jankovic became the No. 1-ranked player, for a single week, she also became the only No. 1 player -- among the 18 since the current rankings system was installed in 1975 -- not to own a major.

Wait, there's more. Jankovic, despite her talent, has never, ever even played in a Grand Slam final. She has been to five semifinals, including three of four this year. Jankovic lost to eventual champions Sharapova in Melbourne and Ivanovic at the French Open.

This is why Dementieva says, "I think probably the most consistent player is Jelena Jankovic for the moment."

That may be, but Dementieva has been the most efficient so far here. Like Serena Williams, she has won all 10 of her sets, but she also has spent a total of 15 fewer minutes on the court, averaging a tidy 74 minutes per match.

Moreover, Dementieva's usually inconsistent serve, with some help from former pro Harold Solomon, has become a weapon. She is among the top 10 statistical leaders here in service games won (81.4 percent) and break points saved (70.4 percent). Contrast this with Jankovic's numbers of 77.4 percent and 53.8 percent, respectively.

Dementieva has always had terrific groundstrokes. If she had been fortunate enough to have a similarly reliable serve through the years, she already might have two or three majors. With everything working, Dementieva will be a tough out.

"It will be a tough match, for sure," Jankovic said. "I think I've beaten her here two years ago in the quarterfinals [6-2, 6-1]. So it will be another experience, and I would love to make another step forward and reach my first final of a Grand Slam and then play on Saturday.

"We will see what will happen on Friday, and hopefully it will be my day."

Greg Garber is a senior writer for ESPN.com.