NEW YORK -- We may disagree on whether Serena Williams is the real No. 1 in women's tennis, but we all knew the U.S. Open semifinal that pitted her against Kim Clijsters would look like a real final, played by two former winners in the time slot originally allotted for the championship.
The jaw-dropping way in which the match ended simply makes Sunday night's final even more of an anticlimax. And no matter what transpired to lead up to that moment -- a questionable foot-fault call, an expletive-laced confrontation -- that aftermath is unfair to the player who was left standing.
Clijsters wanted to earn match point with great footwork or a lashing passing shot or one of the deep groundstrokes that handcuffed Williams on more than one occasion. But instead of tasting the sweetness of playing a decisive point, Clijsters saw circumstances blow out the candles on her birthday cake before she had the chance to.
"It's a little bit unfortunate that I didn't have that, but it's not going to take anything away from [Sunday's] match or how special that would be for me, and for both of us," said Clijsters, referring to 19-year-old Dane and Grand Slam finals debutante Caroline Wozniacki, who will face off against her for the title Sunday night. "When you play that last point, whether it is a winner or by [a] mistake from your opponent, you know, it's a great feeling to have.
"So, yeah, the normal feelings of winning a match weren't quite there. I think afterwards when everything kind of sunk in a little bit and got explained to me about what happened, yeah, you kind of have to put it all in place, and then it becomes a little bit easier to understand and to kind of not celebrate but at least have a little bit of joy after a match like that."
Clijsters may have been in the competitive zone Saturday night, but she is far too wise and seasoned a professional to assume she would have won the match. Williams has fought her way back from the precipice too many times.
The Belgian star said she deliberately tuned out the cacophony on the other side of the court, trying to remain locked onto her target, and heard none of the exchange between Williams and the lineswoman who called the fateful foot fault or the discussions that ensued. After the huddle near the umpire's chair broke up and Williams began walking toward her, hand extended in defeat, Clijsters looked stunned, then stricken.
Both players retreated to the locker room, and chaos trailed them down the hallway. As Williams' father, Richard, waited, his facial expression rigid with anger, he politely declined comment to the first reporter who approached him but became increasingly agitated as others converged on him.
Williams' hitting partner and her agent tangled with a television cameraman who was filming outside the locker room, and security stepped in to clear a space where journalists habitually loiter. Richard Williams finally walked outside the stadium and was greeted by NBA star Kevin Garnett, but even that encounter did not take the edge off his fury. Seeing other reporters gathering, he called security and stormed away.
Richard Williams may have bequeathed fierceness and an explosive, racket-cracking temper to his daughter, but her mother, Oracene Price, is visible in Serena's makeup as well. It's evident in the composure Serena can display under stifling pressure, and it was evident in Serena's ability to curb her emotions at the moment when it was clear that rules dictated that the match end.
"I didn't know what was going on," Price said. "I was watching from the stands like everybody else." Asked to come up with an adjective to describe the moment, she pondered before saying, "Startling."
But Price refused to second-guess anyone involved, whether it was the officials or her daughter. "It's her call when she's out there," Price said. "I think she should speak up for what she thinks is right."
Will anyone remember that this was a riveting, high-quality match between two strong, compelling and charismatic players in a sport that desperately needs them right now? Will there be any replays of the long rallies that featured crisp, smart, powerful and varied shot-making? Probably not, and that's a shame.
The way Clijsters and Williams hammered away, breaking each other's service games in a way no other player had managed to do here in Flushing Meadows, was so refreshingly different from the neurotic, underachieving play that has plagued the women's draw. There were no histrionics and no hormonal outbreaks, just two proud and gifted jocks going about their business. Until the end.
Clijsters said it wasn't until her postmatch cooldown, as she was stretching and riding a stationary bike, when she remembered she'd been on the court during another singularly controversial moment in Williams' career, the infamous 2001 Indian Wells final when the family's allegations of racist behavior by fans have led Serena and sister Venus to boycott the tournament since.
"You kind of wonder, you know, what is it with our matches?" Clijsters said. "But then again, I mean, it's a completely different situation."
Despite those coincidences, these two players are friends with a deep mutual respect, and both handled their meetings with the media superbly. With any luck at all, this will not be the last time they meet, and the rest of their matches will end with more enjoyable fireworks. It's been a while since someone not named Williams has given Serena a match that tough in a major, and she said as much.
"I think Kim played a wonderful match, and I think I played good, too," Williams said. "I think I could have played better, and I actually feel like I can go home and I can actually do better, which I'm really excited about. There's someone out there that makes me want to go home and makes me want to work out and makes me want to run and do better. I can't wait to do that."
It has long been lamented that the U.S. Open -- and women's Grand Slam finals in general -- haven't produced great finals in the past decade. Thirteen straight championship matches here have been decided in straight sets, and the last time there was even a tiebreaker was in 1999, the year Williams won her first major title and kicked off the sisters' remarkable decade of domination.
Clijsters' experience and form will make her a heavy favorite against the delightfully well-adjusted Wozniacki, who has parlayed an old-fashioned work ethic and a balanced game into a breakout season. If anyone can shake off the blues from the most bizarre ending to a match in this somewhat bizarre fortnight, it's Clijsters, who experienced the best and worst of what life has to offer in her two years of retirement. She'll need all the perspective she can get.
Bonnie D. Ford covers tennis and Olympic sports for ESPN.com. She can be reached at email@example.com.