Serving to Jelena Jankovic in the fourth game of the second set, Serena Williams cracked an ace to save a break point, then lingered, bent at the waist with her head hanging, clearly and nearly on the verge of tears. It was inevitable that an injury timeout would follow after Williams was broken to whittle her lead to 6-2, 1-2, but nobody expected that it would be Jankovic receiving treatment.
Jankovic, the most successful player in China Open history with 20 wins before this final, repaired to the locker room, and I probably wasn’t the only one wondering if this wasn’t some ploy to give Williams’ back sufficient time to stiffen up.
If it was, the ranking drama queen of the WTA delivered an Oscar-worthy performance convincing us otherwise. For Jankovic was never the same player after she returned following six minutes of treatment on her right hip. She was broken swiftly and mercilessly in the ensuing game, the break clincher a half-hearted backhand semi-drop shot error. When Williams followed with an easy hold, it appeared that she was the one who had found a miracle cure in that six-minute injury timeout taken by her rival.
Now this is all par for the course when Jankovic is in action; her talent for confusing matters and creating chaos out of order is unique. But she’s also one of the most appealing ball strikers in the game today, and her movement is natural, easy, and flowing. She’s right at the top of that very short list of women who can find solutions to Williams’ big, serve-and-power based game, and her 4-6 record against the world No. 1 is probably the envy of Maria Sharapova and Victoria Azarenka.
But despite those credentials, and her outstanding career record in Beijing (she’s reached two finals, winning one), the harsh reality is that the former No. 1 was just 3-4 in this tournament dating back to 2009, and she's won just tournament since 2010 (Bogota, this year). If Jankovic was really going to reclaim her place near the very top, this was the right place to start. And for a while it looked as if Jankovic might summon up some of her anti-Williams juju and badly needed Beijing magic.
True to her resurgence narrative, Jankovic extended Williams in a very long opening game and even got a look at a break point. But is Serena Williams, the acemaker and dream breaker extraordinaire of the WTA. She rocked Jankovic’s next service game for a break and, in the blink of an eye, belted her way to a lead of 3-0.
Jankovic kept the lead to one break all the way to 5-2, but she crumbled under the pressure in the eighth game. She fell behind 15-40, and was immediately broken when she misfired with the backhand off the service return.
Before long, Williams had run off 14 of 15 points—including 12 straight on serve—to lead 1-0 in the second set. Jankovic rallied to hold the next game and finally saw her first break point since the opening game of the match in the third game. Williams dismissed that one with an ace, and fended off yet another with another ace—the one I mentioned at the beginning. But she succumbed on her third break point and it looked as if Williams was in trouble.
The ensuing injury timeout by Jankovic was a shocker, as was the way Williams’ own physical condition, far from worsening, seemed to improve dramatically after the break. After a swift hold by Williams upon the resumption, Jankovic surrendered the critical break when she was let down by her signature shot, the down-the-line two-handed backhand that, back in the glory days, she used to own. She made two errors with it in the game, the second on break point.
With a 4-2 lead, Williams struggled through a game but managed to avoid a break point. A dispirited Jankovic began the 2-5 game with an ominous double fault. Her grimace suggested that she was in pain, and not just the kind so routinely inflicted by Williams. Jankovic gamely fought off two match points, but she was finally undone by a Williams forehand service-return winner and a cross-court forehand error of her own.