Kim Clijsters of Belgium returns to Venus Williams of the United States at the US Open tennis tournament in New York, Tuesday Sept. 6, 2005. (AP Photo/Elise Amendola)
NEW YORK Acrobatics and dogged effort trumped artistry as Kim Clijsters, two games from losing in straight sets, scrambled back to beat an exhausted Venus Williams and reach the U.S. Open semifinals.
Clijsters, trying to shed her label as the best woman on tour never to win a Grand Slam title, performed more than a dozen of her patented leg splits chasing balls Tuesday night to take down Williams 4-6, 7-5, 6-1.
Waiting for the Belgian in the semis Friday will be top-seeded Maria Sharapova, who yielded a set for the first time in the tournament before beating fellow Russian Nadia Petrova, the ninth seed, 7-5, 4-6, 6-4.
''I wasn't really thinking about the score,'' said Clijsters, who trailed 4-6, 2-4 with Williams serving in the second set. ''I just tried to keep fighting and just kept running for each ball.''
That she did, and Williams wilted. Clijsters broke Williams' vaunted serve three straight times, overcame a break of her own serve, and evened the match on her third set-point.
Williams, who looked so fit in winning the longest Wimbledon final on record two months ago against Lindsay Davenport, had nothing left after holding serve in the first game of the third set. Her left hip, she said, started hurting and threw off her game. She had played only one tournament between Wimbledon and the U.S. Open after a bout of flu and seemed worn down, despite not losing a set the past week.
Clijsters won the final six games, closing out the 2-hour, 5-minute match when Williams, her lavender dress drenched in sweat, lofted a forehand long.
''I was playing decent and she started playing really bad and it totally threw me off,'' Williams said, whose lack of graciousness after the match equaled her lack of precision during it. ''She started hitting these really weird shots and short balls, just weird stuff. Next thing I knew I was playing as bad as she was. She was able to recover. I just wasn't. I guess maybe it was a good strategy.''
Clijsters, the hottest player on tour with six titles this year but none in the majors, saw this victory as one of the biggest in her career. She missed the U.S. Open last year while recovering from wrist surgery.
''This definitely means a lot more than any win before my surgery,'' Clijsters said.
''I just kept hanging in there. I don't think I was playing the same level in the first set as I did in the third set. As long as you end on a good level, that's the most important thing. That's what I did today.''
Sharapova won her first four matches in an average of 59 minutes. Against Petrova, each of the first two sets took almost as long, and the match ran 2 1/2 hours before Sharapova, shrieking on nearly every point, ended it with a break in the final game on a lunging backhand return Petrova couldn't handle.
''Wow! It's absolutely amazing, I can't believe I pulled this match out today,'' said Sharapova, who lost in the third round last year and the second round in her first U.S. Open two years ago. ''So many ups and downs. ... I just found a way to fight. A lot of credit to Nadia, she played an amazing match.
''I thought it was too easy in the beginning. I was on fire. She wasn't playing that badly, I was just making winner after winner. All of a sudden, I just went out of the stadium and my mojo wasn't there. ... The last game I guess it just decided to come back.''
Roger Federer sneered, tossed his racket in disgust. Horror of horrors, he, too, lost a set.
For most of the U.S. Open, the defending champion and top seed seemed to sleepwalk through his matches, playing only as well as necessary, waking up and painting lines when pressed. He made up shots as he went along a sprinkling of aces at various speeds and angles, a backhand pass that got him out of trouble, a volley that came out of nowhere between yawns.
That was enough until he got into a little trouble against Nicolas Kiefer on Tuesday. Suddenly Federer had a reason to elevate his game and stir some emotion. Now he swept in toward the net, pounded winners from the baseline, stopped wasting time and effort.
Under just the hint of pressure, Federer produced his best tennis of the tournament to beat Kiefer 6-4, 6-7 (3), 6-3, 6-4 and land safely in the quarterfinals. Match point was a masterful final stroke an inside-out forehand crosscourt that Federer tucked neatly in the corner, far from Kiefer's reach.
Lleyton Hewitt, the 2001 champion and runner-up to Federer last year, reached the quarters for the sixth straight year with a 6-1, 6-4, 6-2 win over No. 15 Dominik Hrbaty, who drew more attention for his pink peekaboo shirt than his play.
''It made it a lot easier for me to beat him today,'' Hewitt said. ''I just couldn't lose to a bloke wearing a shirt like that.''
Hewitt advanced to play Jarkko Nieminen, who became the first Finn to reach the quarters in a Grand Slam event with a 6-2, 7-6 (6), 6-3 victory over Spain's Fernando Verdasco.
Federer next plays 11th-seeded David Nalbandian of Argentina, a 4-6, 7-6 (4), 6-4, 6-2 victor over Italian Davide Sanguinetti. Federer said before that match he would prefer Nalbandian, ''because I have a bad record against him.''
Former champion John McEnroe liked that.
''Most guys would like to play the guy they have the winning record against,'' McEnroe said when he stepped outside the broadcast booth. ''That's what you love about Roger he embraces the challenge.''
Nalbandian holds a 5-2 record against Federer, though Federer won the last two meetings in 2003 and '04.
''I like to play against guys who have beaten me, especially early in the career, try to get them back,'' Federer said. ''He was a tough opponent for me for a long, long time.''
The 24-year-old Federer lost only one set on the way to his third Wimbledon title two months ago, and that also was against Kiefer, who gives him tough matches but can't quite win. Federer has beaten the German six straight times, four of them this year.
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