NEW YORK — After trailing for much of the third set, Venus Williams suddenly was right back in the thick of her U.S. Open semifinal against Kim Clijsters, serving at 4-all, 30-all.
At that moment Friday night, it didn't matter that Williams, 30, was bidding to become the oldest woman to win a Grand Slam title in two decades. Or that she had arrived at Flushing Meadows coming off a left knee injury that meant she hadn't played a match in more than two months.
Then came two pivotal points. First, Williams double faulted for the seventh time, giving Clijsters a break point. Next, Clijsters curled a perfect backhand lob over the 6-foot-1 Williams to go ahead 5-4.
Williams stopped chasing and watched the ball fall, then hung her head. And that, basically, was that. Defending champion Clijsters held on, winning 4-6, 7-6 (7-2), 6-4 to extend her U.S. Open winning streak to 20 matches and return to the final.
"I just wish," said Williams, the third seed, "I could have played the bigger points a little better."
She is 52-2 after taking the first set at the U.S. Open — and both of those losses have come against Clijsters, the second seed, who faces No. 7 Vera Zvonareva in tonight's final. If Clijsters wins the championship, she will be the first woman with two consecutive U.S. Open titles since Williams in 2000-01.
"Obviously, this is what you try to achieve," said Clijsters, also the 2005 Open champion. "I never expected I'd come back in this position. I was trying to do it. It wasn't easy, but I stuck with it."
Zvonareva reached her second Grand Slam final in a row by upsetting top seed Caroline Wozniacki 6-4, 6-3. A year ago in New York, Clijsters — playing in the third tournament of her return after more than two seasons away from the tour — beat Wozniacki in the final.
With the wind gusting up to 20 mph on an overcast day — the stadium lights were on for the start of the Clijsters-Williams second semifinal, even though it was a little after 4:15 p.m. — Williams increasingly found trouble with her groundstrokes, spraying more and more out of bounds, and ending up with 50 unforced errors.
"I felt that I was hitting well with the wind," Clijsters said. "I felt that I was making her move around, and that's what I was really tying to focus on. I was able to kind of rise to the occasion when I had to."
Still, her first six points in the pivotal second-set tiebreaker came from Williams mistakes, including a pair of double faults and a badly botched overhead she sailed long.
Summed up Williams, who was hoping to get to her first Open final since 2002: "I wasn't able to play as well as I wanted. I had too many errors."
Zvonareva played in her first major final at Wimbledon in July, losing to Serena Williams, and now gets a second crack at a Grand Slam title. She was steadier than Wozniacki, who averaged 11 unforced errors through her first five matches of the tournament and made 31 against Zvonareva.
"With those windy conditions, you have to play, sometimes, ugly," Zvonareva said. "You don't have to expect to play your best tennis."
Who can prevent a Nadal-Federer final?
All the cues and hand gestures indicate that the long-awaited Rafael Nadal-Roger Federer U.S. Open championship final indeed will materialize. Both of the world's top two players have performed with panache and power despite the tournament's most difficult weather conditions in memory, battering heat followed by hair-raising winds.
The only thing that can stop them now is today's semifinal round. No small task, with top seed Nadal facing the man who upset him in the 2006 Open quarterfinals, No. 12 Mikhail Youzhny, and second seed Federer matched against No. 3 Novak Djokovic, the 2008 Australian Open champ and perennial major tournament threat.
But the odds favor a Nadal-Federer showdown, which would be — remarkably, given that either Federer or Nadal has won 20 of the past 22 Grand Slam events — the first time they duel for the U.S. Open title.
Even more surprising, it would represent the first time in tennis history that the same two men would have played each other, at some point in their careers, in every Grand Slam final.
"I am at the right round without problems, so that's very positive," Nadal said.
Said Federer, "Nothing is safe until you're through, until you're in the final."
What kind of person would want to blow up a Nadal-Federer final?
"I'm ready to be a bad person," Youzhny said. "I love to be a bad person in this case."