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Four varying paths lead to semis

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NEW YORK -- Boil down the four U.S. Open women's semifinalists to their element, and this is what you get: The Diva. The Jock. The Grande Dame. The Bridesmaid.

Maria Sharapova, Kim Clijsters, Mary Pierce and Elena Dementieva take their distinct personalities into Friday's semifinals, but their ambition is identical: a U.S. Open crown. None has won it before.

"After last year, I've been dreaming about (the final on) Saturday night every single day, so who knows?" said 2004 runner-up Dementieva following her gutsy win against No.2 seed Lindsay Davenport of the USA.

Davenport's defeat and the Williams sisters' exits left the USA without a representative in the semifinals for the first time since 1994.

No.6 seed Dementieva of Russia plays 12th-seeded Pierce of France in one half of the draw, and No.1 seed Sharapova of Russia faces No.4 seed Clijsters of Belgium.

None of the remaining semifinalists has won a Grand Slam tournament in 2005, and only Pierce, at the French Open, has been in a final. Clijsters and Dementieva have never won a major. The matchups should offer plenty of teeth-rattling hitting, some heartache and, for one, triumph.

Sharapova-Clijsters is a battle between former No.1s. The Siberian-born, Florida-trained Sharapova is keen to add to her sole Slam at Wimbledon but barely survived Nadia Petrova in the quarterfinals. The self-styled "global brand," who will regain the top spot regardless of how she fares, has been to the semifinals in Australia and Wimbledon but has been unable to reach another major final.

"It gives me a lot of confidence that I can pull out a win like that when there are points of a match where you don't feel great," the 18-year-old said after beating compatriot Petrova in roller-coaster three-set win.

Clijsters, whose mother was a top gymnast and father a former soccer star, owns a 2005 tour-best six titles and 54-6 record. Her jock pedigree and stellar season after missing most of last year with a wrist injury have not translated into a Grand Slam title despite four final appearances, including the 2003 U.S. Open.

The 22-year-old Belgian, perhaps the game's best defensive player, will have to get the flat-hitting Sharapova into long rallies without losing her own attacking style if she is to get the Slam monkey off her back.

"I'll have to make sure that I stand on the baseline and make sure that I keep hitting aggressively," said Clijsters, who is 3-0 lifetime against Sharapova, beating her most recently in the Miami final in March.

Like Clijsters, 30-year-old Pierce is having a resurgence. She struggled with injuries following her 2000 French Open title, one of two majors she owns.

The in-form Frenchwoman has won 21 of her last 23 matches, pounding her way to the Roland Garros final and the quarterfinals of Wimbledon before winning a Tier I event in San Diego four weeks ago. The elder stateswoman dispatched both 2003 U.S. Open champ Justine Henin-Hardenne and No.3 seed Amelie Mauresmo to reach her first semifinal in New York.

"There was just kind of like this little voice inside of me that just said, 'You know, you're not done,'" Pierce said of the time when shoulder and back ailments threatened to end her career.

Dementieva burst onto the tennis scene by making the final four in New York in 2000 as an 18-year-old. Though she has risen as high as No.4, the 23-year-old from Moscow has not been able to ride her rock-solid groundstrokes to a major win, losing in the final of both the 2004 French and U.S. Opens.

Pierce will attempt to use her power to hit through the Russian. If Dementieva can hold her own -- and if her suspect serve holds up under pressure -- she stands a chance to reach a second consecutive Open final, which could be the second consecutive all-Russian final should Sharapova also come through. Dementieva holds a 2-0-career edge against Pierce, though they have not met since 2003.

Should Pierce prevail, she would become the first Frenchwoman to reach the U.S. Open final.

"Mary, when she plays like that can beat anyone," quarterfinal victim Mauresmo said.

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© Copyright 2004 USA TODAY, a division of Gannett Co. Inc.

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