NEW YORK (AP) – Mary Pierce resorted to gamesmanship and Kim Clijsters recovered the spark she’d momentarily lost to set up a U.S. Open final between one of the oldest women in the game and the toughest on tour this year.

Pierce brought her famous histrionics to a new level Friday – a 12-minute, double-injury timeout after she lost the first set, another tape job afterward, doses of eye drops here and there, endless poses and finger-blowing between shots – before she finally put away last year’s rattled runner-up, Elena Dementieva, 3-6, 6-2, 6-2.

Clijsters watched five match points disappear before her disbelieving eyes in the second set against top-seeded Maria Sharapova, got crushed in a tiebreak, then found the fire she needed to win 6-2, 6-7 (4), 6-3 and remain in pursuit of her first Grand Slam title.

The way the two matches played out, the final in prime time tonight has the makings of a soap opera.

It will be Pierce’s first U.S. Open final in a 17-year-career and her second major final this year as she tries to atone for the shellacking she suffered against Justine Henin-Hardenne at the French three months ago. For the 22-year-old Clijsters, who sat out last year’s Open with a wrist injury after reaching the final in 2003, this will be a chance to win her first major title and seventh tournament this year.

At 30, Pierce knows all the tricks of the tennis trade, and she used them to good effect against Dementieva, a 23-year-old Russian who had enough trouble overcoming her own tragic serve, never mind waiting for Pierce to play.

Pierce had a minor injury – a right quad muscle she tweaked in her quarterfinal victory over fellow Frenchwoman Amelie Mauresmo – but she decided, in the interests of strategy, not to tape it before playing Dementieva.

“I didn’t want my opponent to know there was anything wrong with me,” Pierce said.

Dementieva didn’t have to see a bandage to know she could win points against Pierce by running her from side to side. Avoiding the double-faults that often plague her – she had 62 in the first five rounds – Dementieva seemed on the verge of a straight-sets victory even with her powder-puff serves.

Pierce, though, wasn’t about to give up so easily on a chance to claim the third major title of her career, five years after she won the French and 10 years after she won the Australian.

The rules allow a player one timeout per injury, and each timeout is not supposed to exceed 6 minutes – 3 minutes for evaluation, 3 minutes for treatment. Because Pierce claimed two injuries – she said her leg problem was affecting her back – she was allowed two timeouts.

She lay on her stomach while the trainer massaged her back, then did a couple of yoga stretches. She had her right thigh wrapped with a yard of tape. While Dementieva went back onto the court to warm up, Pierce got down on the ground again and the trainer worked some more on her back.

“You can change the game around by winning an unbelievable point or by changing the rhythm,” Dementieva said. “By taking a 12-minute timeout, I don’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, I mean, it’s up to her.

“I’ve never had such a long break. I was trying just to keep warm, stay focused because that was pretty long.”

Dementieva was thrown off almost as much by the time Pierce took between points when they resumed play. Pierce always plays deliberately, but in this match she got away with more delays than usual.

“If she has 20 seconds, she’s going to use 25 seconds between points,” Dementieva said.

Pierce denied the timeouts were gamesmanship.

“No. No, not at all,” she protested.

“I had injuries that I needed to attend to to help me. I was hoping that would help, that I could play better, and it did.”

Pierce surely looked like a different player in the second and third sets, while Dementieva’s level dropped. The Russian double-faulted four times in the final set, running her tournament total to 68, 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.

Clijsters had to stop thinking about what Sharapova did to her at the end of the second set. Clijsters, up a set and leading 6-5 in the second, had triple match points at love-40 when Sharapova double-faulted. But the 18-year-old Russian produced a great drop shot to save the first, came up with other ways to save the next two, then saved two more match points before holding serve to send the set to a tiebreak that she also won to even the match.

Clijsters slumped in her chair, frustrated that a first major title might once again slip from her grasp.

Over the loudspeakers came the Beatles song, “Can’t Buy Me Love,” with the lyrics, “I don’t care too much for money, money can’t buy me love.”

Money can’t buy Clijsters a Grand Slam trophy either, but she just might earn it if she plays on Saturday the way she did in the third set against a weary Sharapova. A $2.2 million check wouldn’t be unwelcome, but that would mean less to the Belgian than the trophy.

“I’m not going to go out there tomorrow thinking, I’m playing for $2.2 million.’ No, not at all,” she said. “It’s a great bonus. But that’s not what you play for.”

AP-ES-09-09-05 2100EDT

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