NEW YORK — All Mary Pierce and Kim Clijsters needed was a little extra time to get to the U.S. Open final.
Pierce took a controversial 12-minute injury timeout after losing the first set, then gutted out a 3-6, 6-2, 6-2 victory over last year's runner-up, Elena Dementieva, on Friday to earn a spot in her first U.S. Open final. Clijsters, seeking her first Grand Slam title, blew five match points in the second set before overcoming No. 1 Maria Sharapova 6-2, 6-7 (4), 6-3.
"It was tough," Clijsters said. "I gave everything I had on those match points and she just came up with better shots. I said from the third set on, 'Just go for it.' It worked."
Clijsters will be playing for the richest prize in Grand Slam history — double the $1.1 million winner's share, because she won the U.S. Open series leading up to the tournament. "I'm not really playing for the money," Clijsters said. "I just want to go out there and have fun. I really missed it so much last year."
Pierce hurt her right leg during her quarterfinal victory over Amelie Mauresmo, but she decided against taping it before the match with Dementieva.
"I didn't want my opponent to know there was anything wrong with me," Pierce said.
Bad move. She had no touch on her shots and had trouble with her serves, double-faulting three times in the first set. She repeatedly bounced on her toes, shook her calves and smacked her thighs.
"After I lost the first set, I was like, 'OK, I need to get help because I can't play this way,' " said Pierce, a two-time Grand Slam winner who lost to Justine Henin-Hardenne in a lopsided French Open final. "I wasn't able to play my game. I wasn't into the match. I wasn't able to move."
According to the rules, a player is allowed one timeout per injury, and each timeout is not supposed to exceed six minutes — three minutes for evaluation, three minutes for treatment. Because Pierce had two injuries, the thigh and back, she was allowed two timeouts.
She lay on her stomach while the trainer kneaded her back, and did a couple of half-push-ups to try to stretch it out. Then she had her right thigh wrapped with several layers of tape. While Dementieva went back onto the court to warm up, Pierce got back on the ground and the trainer worked some more on her back.
"I think it didn't affect my game. But do I think she had something? I don't think so," Dementieva said. "I didn't think it was a fair play, but she could do it by the rules. And she did it. If that's the only way she can beat me, it's up to her."
But Pierce denied the break was gamesmanship. "No. No, not at all," she said. "I'm 30 years old, I've been on the tour 17 years, I don't believe in that. I don't think that will make a difference. I believe at this level where we're playing, we're all very mentally strong.
"I had injuries that I needed to attend to to help me," she added. "I was hoping that would help, that I could play better, and it did." Did it ever. Pierce was the sharper of the two in the remaining sets, directing the younger Russian with commanding groundstrokes from the baseline. She hit winner after winner, punctuating each shot by shaking her fists and tapping her chest above her heart.
While Pierce seemed to settle down, Dementieva got increasingly rattled the longer they were on the court. Dementieva, who arguably has the worst serve on the tour and made 62 double-faults coming into the match, had six this time, including four in the last set. She committed 19 errors in the final set, and repeatedly looked at her mother and coach, Vera, for encouragement.
It did no good.
"Maybe I was a little bit angry in the second set, but then I know if I want to win this match, I have to be focused, not think about what she did," Dementieva said. "I didn't take advantage of the first set, that I was playing so good. I just gave her a chance to play better in the second set, and she took the advantage of this."
Clijsters came into the U.S. Open as the hottest player, having won a tour-best six titles already, and she didn't slow down against Sharapova.
The Russian seemed rattled in the first set, muttering to herself, stomping her feet, looking at her father, even throwing her racket at one point. And when she double-faulted to give Clijsters triple match point in the second set, it looked as if the match was going to be over in a hurry.
But she saved one point with a spectacular rally, hitting a clever drop shot on the 29th shot and worked the game back to deuce. She fought off two more match points, then won the game to force the tiebreaker.
After coming back from a minibreak in the tiebreaker, Sharapova played some of her best tennis of the match. She won five of the next six points, and crushed a forehand out of the Belgian's reach to set up set point. Sharapova didn't waste that, coming in with a forehand to close out the set and even the match.
But Clijsters quickly regained her form, breaking Sharapova right away and winning the first four games. Clijsters broke Sharapova again to go up 5-2, but dropped her own serve when the Russian came on strong again and wrong-footed her with a forehand to add one last bit of tension.
That didn't last long. Sharapova double-faulted for the seventh time to start what would be the final game, and saw the match end when she hit a forehand into the net on one last, long rally.