- Greg Garber, Writer, Reporter
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NEW YORK -- Maria Sharapova hits hard, flat shots and, almost unfailingly, aims for the lines. When you grow up in Siberia and move to America at the age of nine, going for it - all the time, regardless of circumstance - might seem like the only option.
Most of the time, the 2004 Wimbledon champion's shots find the mark; when the WTA Tour rankings come out on Monday, she will be ranked as the No. 1 player. But there are rare days when something in the calibration of hand and eye isn't quite right. On Friday, with the breezes swirling in Arthur Ashe Stadium, it just wasn't happening.
Playing against Kim Clijsters, the 18-year-old Sharapova never backed off and, in the end, it proved fatal. When you go for more, your margin for error is less. Sharapova went down swinging, saving five match points in a single game, but the more cautious Clijsters ultimately triumphed 6-2, 6-7 (4), 6-3. Ironically, on the sixth and final match point, Sharapova seemed to be trying to take something off the ball, and it fell into the net.
And now, Clijsters will play Mary Pierce in Saturday's prime-time U.S. Open championship final. If the 22-year-old Clijsters wins, as the U.S. Open Series winner over the summer, she will earn $2.2 million -- the biggest purse in women's sports history. More important to Clijsters, it would be her first Grand Slam singles title after appearances in four previous finals and 2004's debilitating wrist injury.
Did she take away anything valuable from those losses?
"I feel, in a way, different," Clijsters said, after a pause. "That was before my injury. I realize a lot more how much I missed tennis. It's a completely different attitude. No matter what happens, I have to go for it."
"I kind of gave it all I had in the tie-breaker and just basically ran out of gas in the third set," a weary Sharapova said later. "Physically, I have to get a lot better and play these three-setters where the points are going to go on and on. Today's match is a great example that it's physical.
"Bad day at the office, what can you say?"
This one looked like a blowout early.
The Belgian broke all four of Sharapova's service games and ran off with the first set in a tidy 28 minutes. The second set was something altogether different.
Sharapova, serving to stay in the match at 5-6, lost the first three points: a backhand that went wide, a forehand in the net and a double-fault that was characteristically hit too hard and sailed long. Somehow, she escaped.
At love-40, she had the audacity to end a wearying 29-stroke rally with a drop shot, of all things. It was successful, and she dodged and weaved -- there were two aces that clipped lines and two double-faults, one off the tape -- her way into a tiebreaker.
In the end, Sharapova's emphatic swinging forehand volley winner gave her the set and a fresh start.
"I know that I didn't play bad points there," Clijsters said. "She had to come up with good shots, and she did. Obviously, it was a little frustrating. I was saying to myself, she came up with those shots at the last minute. Let her do that again if she wants to beat me."
Clijsters reacted by winning the first four games of the final set. This time, there was no comeback. Clijsters, who might not have been mentally tough enough to handle that kind of setback a few years ago, bent (losing two service games) but never quite broke in a match that consumed two hours and 14 minutes.
Sharapova finished with 54 unforced errors, 19 more than her 35 winners. Clijsters had a modest 24 winners, but had only 29 unforced errors.
After left wrist surgery effectively ruined her 2004 season, Clijsters has been on a tear. Her match record is now 55-6, the best on the WTA Tour and she has won six titles, three of them coming on the hardcourts of the summer circuit. Her ranking, which dipped as low as No. 134 in March, will rise to No. 3 on Monday, regardless of Saturday's result.
Clijsters came into this U.S. Open playing better than anyone on hardcourts, man or woman; her win streak is at 21, four behind Steffi Graf's single-season record of 25.
A win over Pierce would probably be enough to make Clijsters the Comeback player of the Year and Player of the Year. There will be four different Grand Slam champions this year -- Serena Williams, Justine Henin-Hardenne and Venus Williams won previously -- and Sharapova and Lindsay Davenport are the only ones who have played at anything approaching Clijsters' consistency.
Clijsters, who has struggled with knee and hip injuries this year, caused a stir recently when she said she would retire after two more seasons on the WTA Tour. With that narrow window, doesn't it put more pressure on her to break through and win a major tournament?
"No, no," she said. "Not at all. It just gives me that goal. I enjoy playing tennis. But you should have seen me walking around after that match with Venus. My ankles and my wrists were sore and making a lot of noise.
" I'm 22, but my body is not 22 any more."
Greg Garber is a senior writer for ESPN.com.