By Liz Clarke
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, September 11, 2010; 12:43 AM
FLUSHING MEADOWS, N.Y. - It was a showdown between two former No. 1 players, each seeking her third U.S. Open championship. And it was a battle between a 30-year-old and the mother of a 2-year-old.
Friday's clash between Venus Williams and Kim Clijsters for a spot in Saturday's U.S. Open final showcased the athleticism of women at an age and stage of life that not long ago might have been deemed retirement years.
It also delivered a gripping look at the power and pressure of women's tennis, with wild swings of momentum over 2 hours 23 minutes.
Its only shortcoming was that it wasn't the U.S. Open final, which hasn't seen a three-set women's match since 1995, when Steffi Graf beat Monica Seles.
On Friday, Clijsters, 27, prevailed, 4-6, 7-6 (7-2), 6-4, by playing gritty defense and capitalizing on Williams's double faults at critical junctures to advance to Saturday's final.
It's hardly the marquee matchup CBS executives had in mind when they persuaded tournament officials to move the women's final to prime time in 2001. That year, they were rewarded with an all-Williams final, with Venus successfully defending her 2000 title against younger sister Serena, and a 51 percent jump in TV ratings.
This year's U.S. Open took a major hit in star-wattage when Serena, the world's No. 1 player, withdrew to fully recover from foot surgery she underwent in July.
Venus's prospects were in doubt from the start, given that she hadn't competed in two months after taking an extended break following her fourth-round exit at Wimbledon to rest her chronically ailing left knee.
She did remarkably well to reach the tournament's semifinals-without losing a set, no less. But after a strong start against Clijsters on yet another day of gusting winds, Williams lost her bearings on her serve and double-faulted twice in a calamitous second-set tiebreak.
Afterward, she conceded that the pressure of the tiebreak was a factor, as was the wind and her hiatus from competition this summer.
"Obviously I didn't have as much time to train as many of the others," said Williams, who committed 50 unforced errors to Clijsters's 43. "I started out really slow, just an hour a day. I had a good 10 days of practice before this event. I just wish I could have played the bigger points a little better."
After splitting the first two sets, Williams and Clijsters traded service breaks in a ragged third set.
The score knotted at 4-4, Clijsters got the go-ahead break on a well-struck topspin lob when Williams charged the net and struck a volley that appeared as if it would sail long. It dropped in, instead. So Clijsters flicked it over Williams's 6-foot-1 frame.
Afterward, Williams didn't second-guess her tactics of playing the aggressor in that game, coming to net on three of four points. That particular point, she said, turned on luck, more than anything, with Clijsters playing against a wind that helped keep the ball in court.
In Clijsters's view, the only good thing about the wind was that it kept her from sweating so much as the match ground on in the third set.
"My shirt normally is soaking wet," she said. "I was like, 'Oh! I'm like Roger Federer! I don't even sweat!' "
It's the second consecutive year that Clijsters has reached the final of the U.S. Open, which she won in 2005 and again in 2009 in just her third tournament back after retiring to start a family.
"Obviously this is what you try to achieve," Clijsters said during her on-court interview after the match. "I never expected that I would come back in this position. I was trying to do that, but it wasn't always that easy."
In Friday's earlier semifinal, Wozniacki, 20, was favored over the high-strung Zvonareva. The Dane opened the tournament as a suspect top seed in many fans' eyes, having inherited the honor after Serena Williams withdrew. But she proved her mettle with each round, storming into the semifinals, like Williams, without losing a set.
And despite playing the most grueling schedule on the women's tour this summer, Wozniacki insisted that she was fresh and fit for the U.S. Open.
But Friday against Zvonareva, she was frequently a step slow. The Russian got an early break and closed the first set with ease on a crisp volley.
As the match unfolded, Wozniacki's normally reliable forehand betrayed her repeatedly. It was over in just 85 minutes.
"I was really trying," Wozniacki said. "I was really trying to move my legs even more, trying to get into this rhythm where I could lead in this game. But, you know, she was really strong today and she played really well."
Saturday's action at the U.S. Open will start with the first of the men's semifinals: top seed Rafael Nadal taking on 12th-seeded Mikhail Youzhny of Russia. Nadal holds a 7-4 edge in his career meetings with Youzhny, but all four of the Russian's victories have come on hard courts. The two haven't played each other since 2008.
That will be followed by Federer, who is seeking his sixth U.S. Open title, against Serbia's Novak Djokovic. Federer has won 10 of their 15 meetings and all three bouts at the U.S. Open.
"He's obviously been waiting for a breakthrough where he can win this title," Federer said of Djokovic. "But for the last three or four years, he has gone through me and he hasn't been able to get it done."