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NEW YORK (Reuters) - If winning the U.S. Open ever came down to a popularity contest, Kim Clijsters would be roared to victory every time.
The Belgian mother charmed the New York crowds last year when she celebrated an unlikely victory by fooling around with her infant daughter Jada on the center court.
Clijsters has won the hearts of the crowds again this year, despite reaching Saturday's final at the expense of the last American left standing in the singles draw, Venus Williams.
The 27-year-old came from behind to win 4-6 7-6 6-4 on Friday and will play Vera Zvonereva in the final after the Russian upset Denmark's Caroline Wozniacki 6-4 6-3. She is sure to be the favorite both the oddsmakers and the spectators in the stands.
She was a finalist at the U.S. Open in 2004 then won the title in 2005. She missed the next three years, first through injury then after taking a break to start a family, before winning on her return in 2009.
Her winning streak now stands at 20 matches and the crowds have been lapping it up. It is as though her fairytale run to the title last year is being played out all over again.
The former world number one knows, however, that sentiment plays no part in professional tennis and her Russian opponent is dangerous, despite never having won a major title.
This year Zvonareva played her first grand slam final at Wimbledon and she has not dropped a set so far at Flushing Meadows. More worryingly for Clijsters, Zvonareva has won their last two clashes, both this year, after losing the first five.
"She's a player who doesn't give you much, she's always there, hangs in there," Clijsters said.
"It's not that she has a game that's very unpredictable but what she does she does extremely well."
The seventh-seeded Zvonareva is not only one of the most improved players on the women's tour, she is also one of the smartest.
She combines her playing career with studying for a double degree and has learnt her lessons on the court as much as off it.
A year ago, she self-destructed in the quarter-finals in New York. This time, she has been a model of composure.
"As long as you know yourself and you know which emotions are good for you, which are bad, you can use it to your advantage," the 26-year-old said.
"I think that tennis is an emotional game and that you should show your emotions, because it shows that you are trying your best out there."
Although she has won their two most recent clashes, Zvonareva remains wary of the more experienced Clijsters.
"She's a great mover on the court. She has a lot of experience. She won here last year," Zvonareva said.
"It's going to be tough. We played a couple of matches in the past couple of months, but those matches are in the past."
Editing by Nick Mulvenney