Serena survives slugfest vs. Venus; Safina cruises into semis

NEW YORK -- So little to separate them over their careers, so little to separate them on this night.

Serena Williams barely got the better of older sister Venus Williams in a U.S. Open quarterfinal that was fit for a final, coming back in each set to win 7-6 (6), 7-6 (7) on Wednesday night and break a tie in their head-to-head series.

Serena trailed 5-3 in both sets. She faced set points in both -- a total of 10, including eight in the second. But she advanced to the semifinals at Flushing Meadows for the first time since 2002, the year she beat Venus in the title match for her second U.S. Open championship.

"I felt like I was always in control," Venus said. "If it was someone else, I definitely feel like I would have won the match."

It was the siblings' 17th meeting as professionals, and Serena leads 9-8. That includes 11 matches at Grand Slam tournaments, where Serena leads 6-5.

She also has the edge in major championships, 8-7, and only she can add to that total this weekend.

"It's really just unfortunate it had to be in the quarters," Serena said.

In the semifinals, the fourth-seeded Serena will meet No. 6 Dinara Safina, who advanced earlier in the day by overpowering No. 16 Flavia Pennetta 6-2, 6-3. No. 2 Jelena Jankovic will face No. 5 Elena Dementieva in Friday's other semifinal.

It's tough to imagine that either of those contests could come close to producing the quality or competition managed Wednesday by a couple sisters who grew up honing their strokes on the same court in Compton, Calif. Both played brilliantly. Venus smacked serves at up to 125 mph, Serena at up to 115 mph. They somehow returned those. They hit groundstrokes and volleys that would be the envy of nearly every other woman on tour. They chased down balls with "You thought that was a winner?!" defense.

In the end, they were separated by three total points, 101-98. Venus had an 8-7 edge in aces. Both double-faulted five times. Both broke serve twice.

"It was so intense," Serena said.

The seventh-seeded Venus had all sorts of chances to take control, but in the end, as both women's play reached a very high level, it was Serena who pulled through. In the second tiebreak, Venus had four set points -- and Serena saved them all.

"I'm a very good closer," Venus said, "so today was, um -- I've never had a match like this in my life, so I guess there's always a first."

In contrast, when Serena earned her first match point, nearly 2½ hours into the match, she converted it, when the Venus ended an 11-stroke exchange by missing a forehand.

"It was really luck for me, because she never makes those errors," Serena said.

Back when they were ranked Nos. 1 and 2, the siblings could only meet in tournament finals. But because of injuries, inactivity and inconsistency, they dropped in the rankings, and now it's the luck of the draw that determines at which stage they potentially meet.

At Wimbledon in July, for example, the wound up on opposite halves of the field, and Venus beat Serena in the final for her fifth title at the All England Club. At the U.S. Open, they wound up in the same section of the bracket, so the women many consider the two top players at the moment were forced to meet in the round of eight.

The start of the latest all-Williams showdown was delayed by more than an hour because of two lengthy matches that preceded it on the tournament's main court, including a women's doubles match and No. 6 Andy Murray's four-set victory over No. 17 Juan Martin del Potro in the men's quarterfinals. The long day was capped by No. 1 Rafael Nadal against unseeded American Mardy Fish, a quarterfinal that didn't even start until 11:30 p.m.

Venus showed up at the locker room about 20 minutes before she and her sister finally headed out, carrying a bunch of rackets in the crook of her left arm. Serena arrived about five minutes later, a red purse slung over her left shoulder.

Neither face betrayed the slightest hint of emotion, and those same expressionless masks were in place at the match's start. Early on, there were the sorts of nerves and erratic play -- a combined seven first-set double-faults, for example -- that have marked many of the siblings' encounters as they have adjusted to playing one another.

"I try not to look at her, because if I look at her, I might start feeling sorry," Serena told the crowd afterward.

Neither of their parents, who also serve as their coaches, were sitting in the guest boxes at Arthur Ashe Stadium. An older sister, Isha Price, was there, sitting with her hands clasped in front of her face, eyes shut, during the first-set tiebreak.

How could she possibly cheer for one sister against another?

"I was stressed," she said. "It is so difficult to watch them. At the end of the day, you want them to play a good match and for the best person to win."

And did the best person win?

"I'm not sure," Price said.

The 23,763 spectators sitting in the packed stands had a hard time figuring out which Williams to support, too. When Venus missed a backhand wide on the match's first point, there wasn't a sound -- no applause, no yelling, no booing. Nothing.

There wasn't much to separate the sisters' strokes on this night, either.

Down 6-4 in the opening tiebreak, Serena reeled off four points in a row, saving two sets points and ending it when Venus pulled a forehand wide after a 10-stroke exchange.

Serena pumped a fist and yelled -- exactly the way she would against any other opponent.

Venus wasted three set points when she served for the second set at 5-3, 40-0, and a fourth when Serena served while down 6-5.

Then came the second tiebreak, which featured the point of the match. Serena tried a forehand passing shot but Venus stretched and put a volley into a corner. Serena got to that and flicked up a lob that wasn't good enough to get over the 6-foot-1 Venus, who pounded an overhead smash. Now the point was over, right? Nope. Serena got to that, too, stretching the exchange until Venus finally put away a volley to go ahead 5-2.

Fans rose for a standing ovation.

Serena was left gasping for air.

Soon after, Venus was ahead 6-3.

But Serena won six of the last seven points.

"I can't say I was disappointed," Serena said. "You want the best for her, but in that situation you want to win, too."

Safina, the sister of 2000 U.S. Open men's champion Marat Safin, reached her first semifinal at Flushing Meadows. The Russian has won 37 of her past 41 matches and made it to the finals at six of her previous seven events.

"I'm getting closer to reaching the same thing as my brother," Safina said.

The French Open runner-up and Beijing Olympics silver medalist compiled a 25-13 edge in winners against Pennetta and was only broken once.

"She was playing unbelievable, you know," said Pennetta. "She didn't give me a lot of chance."

Now comes a much harder assignment for Safina: trying to beat Williams. Safina is 1-3 against Serena.

This was Pennetta's first career major quarterfinal -- and it showed, right from the start against Safina.

Pennetta, from Italy, came to the U.S. Open with a 21-22 career record in Grand Slam tournaments and a 1-4 mark at Flushing Meadows. She dropped her first service game Wednesday, misjudging an overhead to set up a break point and then flubbing a forehand to end a 15-stroke exchange.

That was part of Safina's run to leads of 3-0 and 4-1. When Pennetta sailed yet another groundstroke long while serving down 5-2, the Russian earned another break and owned the first set.

Safina's one real blip came when she was broken at love to fall behind 2-0 in the second set, as Pennetta smacked a backhand return winner on an 83 mph second serve. But Safina broke right back and then broke again for a 5-2 lead.

At the start of the U.S. Open, Safina was one of six women with a chance to be ranked No. 1 at the end of the tournament.

That included current No. 1 Ana Ivanovic, who was upset in the second round. But by virtue of Jankovic making the semifinals, Ivanovic is assured of dropping from No. 1.