NEW YORK -- Jelena Jankovic didn't throw in the towel when she fell behind. But she knew how to use it to rattle her foe.
Jankovic, the tennis player from Belgrade - a superb Serb - is no dummy. She had begun university, and was despairingly planning to go back for a degree in dramatic arts when her mom talked her out of that scenario and back onto the court - and out of a slump. After all, there's usually more money in tennis, if you're a winner, than acting (a.k.a. waiting on tables), although the dark-haired, zesty 23-year-old ain't a bad thespian.
A few million dollars later, Jankovic is on the largest stage in tennis, sharing the lead in her first major final, the US Open, with Sister Serena, and one win away from queen bee status (temporarily, anyway). That skinny but beloved figure, No. 1, is at stake today.
"The important thing is winning," Jankovic said after knocking off the Olympic champ, Elena Dementieva, 6-4, 6-4, in the first of the semis yesterday. Serena Williams, in her 11th major showdown (having won eight, including the US Opens of 1999 and 2002), seemed to be suffering from post-Venus depression. Both Williamses gave their all-plus in that magnificent intramural quarterfinal Wednesday. But Serena pulled herself enough together to banish Dinara Safina, 6-3, 6-2.
It was a four-filly dash to No. 1 when the matinee began before about 20,000 in Ashe Stadium, six contenders when the tournament commenced. No race before in the female cloister had been so tight. But now it's either Serena or Jankovic, who are 3-3 head to head.
Ah, but the important thing is winning, as Jankovic said, and here's where the towel came in. Not necessarily a crying towel for Dementieva, although she was a bit saddened to see her 12-match winning streak end. Olympic gold meant more to her than the US Open, she said. For the Russians, that's true.
She and Jankovic were trading deep and often-angled ground strokes, commonly running up double-digit rally totals as Dementieva broke ahead with 3-1 and 4-2 leads.
But the swirling wind was difficult to handle, and Dementieva, with her suspect serve (six double faults, five hurtful), was not coping as well as Jankovic.
Moving spectacularly, turning seeming winners into points for herself, Jankovic ran three games to 5-4, and set point. Dementieva was about to serve at 30-40 when Jankovic asked a ballboy for a towel. She knew she was exceeding the 25-second limit between points, but wanted to give shaky Dementieva more time to ponder the situation.
Umpire Lynn Welch dutifully nailed Jankovic with a code violation, but the first time it's only a warning, no loss of point. Dementieva lost the point on her own, and the set, with an errant backhand.
Looking for an edge anywhere, Jankovic had one. She had "come from a country with no tennis tradition, but you can see I'm fighting for every point, never giving up. Until the last point I'm going to be there."
Sent by her family at 12 to Nick Bollettieri's boot camp in Bradenton, Fla., she had to fight to get anywhere in those backcourt battles with some of the planet's best kids, like Maria Sharapova, and became the No. 1 junior in the world before she left.
"This is the first tournament this year that I've been completely healthy. It's a miracle I'm here," Jankovic said.
You think you're in on an episode of "General Hospital" listening to her litany of the year's ailments and injuries, top to bottom and in between. Nevertheless, she was a semifinalist at the Australian and French, and won the Italian.
"I had colds so awful I was blowing my nose all the time," she said. But not blowing matches that could have prevented her from visiting No. 1 briefly - one week - last month, slipping to current No. 2.
Dementieva took the lead again in the second set, 3-2, on a broken serve. But holding a tarantula would have seemed easier than holding serve: eight breaks in 20 games, five of Dementieva.
So the one-time wannabe actress got through another of her daily dramas, doing the splits four times, but not quite as dire as a face-first dive onto the asphalt against Sofia Arvidsson in a three-set second-rounder. Was she dead? She took a very long time arising at a critical moment, and the umpire let her get away with it.
Yes, she knows how to take an edge, and the boys in the balcony loved her. Between games about a dozen of them, Serbs, sang and chanted to her.
"It was stuff like we love you. Rhyming stuff . . . poetry," she said. Maybe they'll send her some monogrammed towels.