Youth Eternal

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61520292FLUSHING MEADOWS, N.Y. — It was a battle for the ages. Or the aged. Sixteen years had passed since two 30-year-olds last met in the quarterfinals of a Grand Slam, when Gigi Fernandez defeated Zina Garrison at Wimbledon 6-4, 6-4 in ’94.

But there was nothing geriatric about the play of either Venus Williams or Francesca Schiavone on Tuesday night in Flushing Meadows, where Williams —who recently professed that “30 is the new 20” advanced to her first U.S. Open semi in three years via a hard-fought 7-6(5), 6-4 triumph.

Schiavone, who has yet to defeat Williams in eight career outings, said she was disappointed with the result “because she doesn’t like to play with me.  I play a different ball.  I push her in defense.  I don’t give her the chance to play how she wants, so every time I think we have a big fight.  So this time is for her, but I will find the way to beat her.”

“I lost a little bit more this match than she won,” Schiavone added. “We are two great athletes.  One has to win, one has to lose.”

Williams denied that she had any aversion to playing Schiavone, saying, “I like seeing my name next to her name.  I’m good with that…I really do enjoy our matchups, obviously, because I usually come out on top.”

Both players had served the lights out coming into the match.  And neither had surrendered a set in four matches.  So it wasn’t surprising to see the evenly played first set head into a tiebreaker.  Williams jumped out to a quick 4-0 advantage, but the spunky Schiavone battled back with four unanswered points of her own, including a pair of athletic backhand volleys.  However, facing set point on her serve down 6-5 in the breaker, the Italian sent a forehand long to surrender the set.

“When we were 5-all, I missed two balls,” said Schiavone, who was trying to become the first Italian woman in the Open Era to reach the U.S. Open semis.  “She didn’t win the points.  I just missed two balls.  That’s tennis.”

Williams appeared to take control early in the second set, capitalizing on a break-point chance to go up 3-1.  But both players began to struggle with the elements and, as a result, their serves, their ball tosses often going astray in the swirling winds of Ashe Stadium.  Trailing 4-2, Schiavone, who cracked the top 10 in June after winning Roland Garros — the highest ever ranking by an Italian — broke back, only to be broken herself once again, giving Williams a 5-3 lead and a chance to serve out the match.  But the No. 3-ranked American failed to close it out and Schiavone closed to within 5-4.  It wasn’t until, with Schiavone serving, Williams got the last break she would need.  Trailing 5-4, and serving at 30-40, the Schiavone scooped an errant forehand that sailed long and sent Williams into the semis.

“When I walked out there, I couldn’t even warm up my serve because the wind was blowing my toss,” said Williams, who’ll face the winner of the Kim ClijstersSam Stosur semifinal.  “I thought, ‘Oh, my god, what are we in for today?’  I’m a strong player and I hit hard, but I felt like I had nothing.  So it was challenging.  I don’t think either of us were able to play our exact normal game because it was just hard to make a choice in the wind.  I think you end up playing a little safer, more toward the center of the court.  But I feel like when the stakes were higher I was able to raise my game.”

This wasn’t exactly new territory for Williams — a two-time U.S. Open champion.  But she had only advanced to the final four in New York once since ’07.

The question now will be whether Venus, who’s been slowed by knee injuries (she withdrew from Stuttgart with right knee tendinitis; Cincinnati and Montreal with left knee tendinitis), can hold up to reach her first USO final since ’02.  For now, Williams says she more than up for the challenge.

“Everybody’s injured, basically, so it’s not just me,” she said.  “You learn how to deal with that and how to maintain yourself, how do deal with certain levels of pain. You figure it out.  As athletes, we’re tough.  Unless we can’t walk, we come on the court.”