New York -- Justine Henin-Hardenne will play Maria Sharapova for the U.S. Open title tonight in a match that begs to be better than the semifinal victories that got them there. What happened on Arthur Ashe Stadium court yesterday was more strange than stunning, more confounding than compelling.
Jelena Jankovic came out like a lion against Henin-Hardenne and was sent home like a lamb. Australian Open and Wimbledon champion Amelie Mauresmo, the top seed, came out like a rank qualifier against Sharapova and was sent home like ... a rank qualifier.
Henin-Hardenne won, 4-6, 6-4, 6-0, in a match that turned on one point in the second set. Sharapova won, 6-0, 4-6, 6-0, in a match that didn't seem to turn on anything other than Sharapova's determination.
It will be Henin-Hardenne's fourth consecutive appearance in a major singles final this year, with one victory at Roland Garros. It will be No. 3 seed Sharapova's first appearance in a major final since she won Wimbledon as a 17-year-old in 2004. Both players are surely grateful for their victories, no matter how they came or what they looked like.
There was Henin-Hardenne, the second seed, at 19th-seeded Jankovic's mercy in the first set, being pushed around, knocked back, dragged side to side. It was Jankovic's first semifinal appearance in a major, and she seemed destined to make the most of it.
"I thought that in the first set, I was the better player, way better," Jankovic said. "I was controlling all the points, was on the top of [my] game. She didn't know what to do. That's how I felt. I was dominating."
At the beginning of the second set, Henin-Hardenne's first serve held her back and Jankovic was still on top. Jankovic was serving up a break at 4-2 in the second and got to 40-30 when her first serve was called out. She looked at the chair umpire for an overrule and didn't get it. She didn't want to use a replay challenge, and questioned the umpire on why he didn't say one way or the other if the ball was out. It was her personal break point of the match. She double-faulted for deuce, then Henin-Hardenne won the next two points for the break.
She won the next three games to take the set, and the next six games to take the match. In the end, Jankovic, devoid of the passion with which she began the match, had lost 10 games in a row. Jankovic had no answers for the swirling winds and the swirling thoughts in her mind.
"My concentration went down because of the umpire," Jankovic said. "And then all of a sudden, I felt the wind started blowing so hard when it was at the end of the second set. I had a tough time. I didn't even know where my balls were going."
Sharapova's heavy-hitting game was augmented by her decision to go more for placement of her serve than for power. She kept her ground strokes in play and let Mauresmo make the errors. She did not hold back on her characteristic shrieking, and after the match wore a T-shirt with bold gold-lettering that said: "I feel pretty when I grunt."
Henin-Hardenne has beaten Sharapova in four of their five matches, including a three-set victory in the Australian Open semifinals this year.
Jeff Williams writes for Newsday.