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 US Open semifinals on Tuesday.
Clijsters defeated Williams 4-6, 7-5, 6-1.
Waiting for the Belgian in the semis tomorrow 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."
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 US 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.
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 US Open last year while recovering from wrist surgery.
"This definitely means a lot more than any win before my surgery," Clijsters said.
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 that 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 US 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.
Roger Federer sneered, tossed his racket in disgust. Horror of horrors, he, too, lost a set.
For most of the US Open, the defending champion and top seed had 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.