NEW YORK - Defending champion Serena Williams advanced to the US Open semifinals last night, setting up a showdown against Kim Clijsters.
The No. 2-seeded Williams beat No. 10 Flavia Pennetta of Italy, 6-4, 6-3, to improve to 23-1 in Grand Slam singles matches this season.
Williams has won three of the past four major championships. She is seeking her fourth US Open title and 12th Grand Slam overall.
With her older sister Venus sitting in the stands, Williams piled up a 21-9 edge in winners against Pennetta, who was trying to be the first Italian woman to reach a Grand Slam semifinal.
Looking ahead to facing Clijsters, Serena said: “She’s such a great person and I only wish the best for her. But not in the next match.’’
The 27-year-old American and 26-year-old Belgian both have 12-match winning streaks at the US Open. Clijsters won the first seven en route to the 2005 title, the last time she played in New York, and now has five this year.
Clijsters finds herself two wins from a US Open title hardly anyone could have seen coming.
She left the game in 2007, married American basketball player Brian Lynch later that year, then gave birth to daughter Jada in February 2008.
Three months after she had her baby, she picked up a tennis racket again.
“I felt like an elephant sometimes, just trying to move,’’ she said. “Even two steps was terrible.’’
That was just for fun, though. She has been much more committed since deciding earlier this year to come back in earnest. Since returning to competition in August, Clijsters is 10-2.
Clijsters dismantled 18th-seeded Li Na, 6-2, 6-4, in the quarterfinals earlier yesterday, punishing China’s top tennis star with deep, stinging groundstrokes that were part of a game that looked about like it did when Clijsters retired two years ago.
Or maybe better.
Still unranked because she only had played in two tournaments before the US Open, Clijsters is the first unseeded player to reach the semifinals at Flushing Meadows since Elena Dementieva in 2000.
“I’m surprised to be sitting here talking to you right now,’’ she said.
Clijsters has already beaten third-seeded Venus and two other seeded players. Her next match is a daunting task, indeed, but anything seems possible.
“She’s obviously someone who plays with a lot of power, and is still a great mover,’’ Clijsters said about Serena. “It doesn’t mean that you don’t get a chance when you get to play her.’’
Rafael Nadal is back in the US Open quarterfinals and soon could be back at No. 2 in the rankings.
What probably pleases him the most: Nadal appeared to be back to his healthy, hustling self during a 6-7 (3), 6-3, 6-1, 6-3 victory over No. 13-seeded Gael Monfils last night, continuing his bid to complete a career Grand Slam.
“Well, very happy, no? After the last two matches I played, I had a few problems, but, anyway, I am here. I am in the quarterfinals for the third time,’’ said Nadal, who showed no significant signs of problems from either the sore knees that kept him off tour for all of June and July - forcing him to skip a title defense at Wimbledon - or the abdominal muscle issue that flared up during his third-round victory over Nicolas Almagro.