NEW YORK - There were a few nasty remarks, a 12-minute injury timeout that somehow was legal, a record number of double-faults from Elena Dementieva - and then, in the second of two stirring women's semifinals at the U.S. Open, perhaps the gutsiest display by Maria Sharapova in her young career.
Six mostly gripping sets and 4 hours and 17 minutes of contentious and courageous tennis after it began yesterday, Kim Clijsters of Belgium and Mary Pierce of France were through to the final.
Any celebrating had to have been brief or nonexistent. The two women, whose countries were also represented this year in the French Open final (Pierce vs. Justine Henin-Hardenne), will be back on the court tonight for the final chapter.
Pierce, who at 30 had thought she had worked herself back into terrific physical condition, had to be treated on court - very controversially - for leg and back injuries at the end of the first set before bouncing back to win over the increasingly irritated Dementieva, 3-6, 6-2, 6-2.
Then, Clijsters, in a match even more engaging than her quarterfinal win over Venus Williams, finally closed out the irrepressible Sharapova, 6-2, 6-7 (4), 6-3, though not until after the 18-year-old transplanted Russian had fought off five match points in the second set, three from love-40 down.
It was the Duchess of Kent who once told Jana Novotna she was "three times lucky" after she finally won Wimbledon after failures in previous finals.
Can Clijsters be five times lucky after losing the Australian Open final in 2004, the French Open finals in 2001 and 2003 and the final here here in 2003?
Clijsters' game plan was to keep retrieving to counter Sharapova's her hard ground strokes, then selectively go to the corners with her own big shots. The strategy worked to perfection in the opening set.
Sharapova had only two winners and 17 unforced errors in the first set and was broken four times before she settled down in the second. She seemed always at a disadvantage trying to hit running forehands and backhands, while the running retrieval is Clijsters' major weapon.
Sharapova had a great chance to break at 2-3 in the second set, but missed a backhand pass up the line off a drop shot by perhaps an inch.
But, down love-40 at 5-6, she began her fight, repelling five match points and sprinting away in the tiebreaker. It seemed to exhaust her emotionally, however, when the two women went to the third set.
Clijsters dashed to a 4-0 lead and never buckled this time.
"I've had a really good American summer so far," she said, and it would get quite a lot better if she wins her first Grand Slam title, which as winner of the U.S. Open Series, would double her paycheck here to $2.2 million.
Clijsters paid tribute to Sharapova for her great play on the match points. "I know I didn't play badly there," Clijsters said. "She had to come up with good shots, and she did."
Maybe this is Pierce's year. There were five years between her first Slam title in the 1995 Australian Open and the 2000 French. But she won't be favored. Without a day's rest, it's difficult to see her coming back so quickly, especially after the long injury timeout.
"By taking like 12 minutes, I don't think it was fair play," said Dementieva, whose six double-faults gave her 68 for the tournament, surpassing her 67 as runner-up in the 2004 French.
The rules say a player is entitled to back-to-back, 3-minute timeouts, plus 3 minutes per injury for a trainer to make an assessment. "If that's the only way she can beat me, it's up to her," Dementieva said.
The South Florida Sun-Sentinel is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.