NEW YORK -- Jelena Jankovic had never been to the Grand Slam inner circle.
And on Friday, as the biggest match of her life unfolded, the 21-year-old Serb reveled in the experience. Jankovic smiled when a volley found its way into the net. She laughed when she fell on her bottom. She watched intently when replays of her finer moments were shown on the big electronic screen in Arthur Ashe Stadium. There were times early on when Jankovic seemed completely oblivious to the staggering stakes -- a spot in the final of the U.S. Open.
And then, up a set and serving at 4-2 in the second, reality dawned.
As Jankovic faded sadly and pathetically under duress, Justine Henin-Hardenne gradually found her championship form. Henin-Hardenne won the last 10 games of the match and claimed an unlikely 4-6, 6-4, 6-0 victory. It was a truly stunning reversal of fortune; in the final game, Henin-Hardenne was exulting, while Jankovic wasn't even pursuing reachable balls.
"She was just on fire," Henin-Hardenne said. "She played really well, and then I pushed her a little bit more. That changed, totally changed, the match."
Henin-Hardenne stands a shade over 5-foot-5 and, including her Adidas sneakers, might weigh 125 pounds. She is a Mini Cooper in an SUV world, and sometimes her arduous journey through the tennis world takes on the feeling of a crusade.
She is, by broad consensus, the toughest player in tennis, and this result did nothing to alter that sentiment. On Saturday night, Henin-Hardenne will play in the U.S. Open final against Maria Sharapova.
Henin-Hardenne, thus, has reached all four major finals this year. That hasn't happened in nine years. On the men's side, Roger Federer has been to the season's first three major finals (winning two) and is poised to reach the fourth. This, as much as anything, underlines Henin-Hardenne's achievement.
"I came back a little bit from nowhere," she said. "It's the kind of match that I probably would have lost in the past."
Afterward, Jankovic was not a gracious loser. She complained about chair umpire Enric Molina, Henin-Hardenne's gamesmanship and, even, the wind.
"My concentration went down because of the umpire," Jankovic said. "He didn't know if the ball was in or not. I lost my concentration and gave her the [second] set.
"She was acting like she had a pain in her back, and she was trying to get me thinking or something. Then, when she was winning, all of a sudden she's hitting the biggest serves ever.
"I had the match. In the first set, I was the better player -- way better. She didn't know what to do. That's how I felt. I was dominating."
Was, as in the past tense. Jankovic wandered into the semifinals here with a sensational run, knocking off world No. 10 Nicole Vaidisova in the third round, No. 7 Svetlana Kuznetsova (the 2004 U.S. Open champion) in the fourth round and No. 5 Elena Dementieva in the quarterfinals.
Henin-Hardenne, of course, represented a fourth consecutive top-10 player in her path. Jankovic's appearance in the final four was the only real surprise of the tournament on the women's side. She was the only player who hadn't been ranked No. 1 in the world and the only one whose ranking wasn't among the top four.
After losing 10 straight matches earlier this year, Jankovic almost quit tennis to concentrate on economics at a university in Belgrade. But, gradually, she found herself and built a modest momentum. She beat Venus Williams in the third round at Wimbledon and won five matches to reach the final in Los Angeles.
Jankovic dominated Dementieva, winning all seven of her service games, and the trend continued against Henin-Hardenne. In an ugly and uneven first set, Jankovic broke Henin-Hardenne in four of five service games. The bad news? Henin-Hardenne broke her back twice.
Henin-Hardenne, when she is healthy, wins with superior movement and court sense. On Friday, through the first 16 games, she had neither. She issued 12 double faults, an alarming number that exceeded her 10 in five previous matches.
Jankovic moved speedily from side to side, running down wide balls in trademark fashion. In the third game of the second set, after a particularly taxing run, she braked dramatically, and in Kim Clijsters fashion, completed a near split. The Serb was also aggressive, moving to net and forcing Henin-Hardenne to hit nearly perfect passing shots. Her backhand down the line, easily her best shot, ended more than a few points.
As she approached the finish line, however, Jankovic started to feel it.
Serving at 4-2 in the second set, she double-faulted on game point and sent a backhand volley into the net. Her unhappiness led to a protracted discussion with Molina and her concentration, quite visibly, began to deteriorate.
On Henin-Hardenne's subsequent serve, she had another game point and failed again. On the next game, it happened again. At 4-all, Jankovic had five game points, but couldn't convert. In the best point of the match, Henin-Hardenne knocked a forehand cross-court volley for a winner and, suddenly, she was serving for the second set.
Henin-Hardenne stroked a confident forehand winner and the match was technically even. In retrospect, though, it was over.
Henin-Hardenne has made a career of tilting at windmills, flailing away at giants and, in the process, has become one herself.
In her first 14 Grand Slam tournaments, she was swept aside by a series of bigger, more experienced players -- three times by Venus Williams, twice by Lindsay Davenport and Clijsters. But Henin-Hardenne has persevered, winning five Grand Slam titles. Over time, most of her early tormentors have left the game or broken down.
This year, Henin-Hardenne won the French Open final, dispatching Kuznetsova in straight sets, but in the Australian Open and Wimbledon finals, she lost to Mauresmo. And, in the process, she unwittingly helped Mauresmo gain the grand confidence that had eluded her for so long.
Now, despite what she describes as a painfully sore back, she has a chance to win her second major of the season.
"I'll be ready," Henin-Hardenne said. "I don't have a choice."
Greg Garber is a senior writer for ESPN.com.