NEW YORK (Reuters) - A rivalry spanning almost a decade will be rekindled on Friday when Venus Williams and Kim Clijsters square off for a place in the U.S. Open final.
Both players have won the title twice but the stakes could hardly be higher when they meet in the semi-finals at Flushing Meadows. The winner will play either Caroline Wozniacki or Vera Zvonareva, who meet in the other semi, in Saturday's final in Arthur Ashe Stadium.
Williams, who won the championship in 2000 and 2001, has not made the final in New York since 2002, when the American lost to her younger sister Serena, while Clijsters is trying to defend the title she won last year.
With Serena missing through injury this year, Venus has opted out of the doubles to focus on singles and her form so far has been illuminating, advancing to the last four without dropping a single set.
"I've always played pretty well here," said Venus. "I feel really comfortable here, and it's great to come back to a place where I have won and a place where I've played well. So all in all, I feel positive."
Clijsters also has a great record at Flushing Meadows, winning her last 19 matches in New York. She won the title for the first time in 2005 but was injured then took a break to start a family.
The Belgian completed a fairytale return to New York when she won last season, celebrating her victory on court with her infant daughter, and says her unexpected success last year has provided her with the confidence she can do it again.
"It's something that you have to experience, obviously," she said. "I guess it's maybe like having a baby. You can't explain it to somebody who has never had a baby what it's like to give birth, because it's a feeling that you can't describe unless it's happened to you."
The pair have played each other 12 times since 2001, winning six times each. Williams was the dominant player in their earlier clashes but Clijsters has won the last four, including a classic three-setter at last year's U.S. Open quarter-finals.
"It was really close. I'm sure that match made a big difference for her, because she went on to win the title," Williams said. "I'm sure we'll have another really good matchup but I'd like to kind of flip the way it turns out."
Wozniacki, promoted to the top seed this year because of the absence of world number one Serena, made the final against Clijsters in 2009 but is a more confident player now.
The 20-year-old won three lead-up events last month to finish as the leading pointscorer in the U.S. hardcourt series. If she wins the U.S. Open she will collect a bonus cash prize of $1 million and replace Serena atop the world rankings.
The Dane has sailed through her matches without dropping a set and developed a killer's instinct to finish off her opponents quickly.
"I'm really competitive," she said. "I really don't like losing."
The pair have played each other just four times before, all in the last two seasons, splitting them two apiece.
Zvonareva, six years older than Wozniacki, has taken longer to hit her straps and will be appearing in her first U.S. Open semi-final, but the seventh-seeded Russian is now flush with confidence after reaching the Wimbledon final in July.
"What does it say? I guess I'm improving. I'm still improving, you know," said Zvonareva. "I've been playing for a while, but I'm still out there and still working hard. I'm still improving."
Editing by Frank Pingue