NEW YORK – The Kim Clijsters (search) who faces Mary Pierce for the U.S. Open title isn't the same Kim Clijsters who lost three Grand Slam finals in an eight-month span two years ago. Not even close.
"That was before my injury. I've realized a lot more how much I missed tennis," Clijsters said Friday after outlasting No. 1 Maria Sharapova (search) to make her first major final since the 2004 Australian Open.
"That's the whole completely different attitude that I have now. No matter what I do, I'm going to go for it because it could be over. If I get another wrist injury, if I have anything else, my career could be over very soon.
"That's why I want to go out there and just enjoy every shot that I can hit."
Clijsters was at the top of her game in 2003, reaching the final in 15 of the 21 tournaments she played, and winning a record nine titles, including the season-ending championship.
For as dominant she was, though, she couldn't win the Big One — any of the four in the Grand Slam (search).
She got to the finals at the French and U.S. opens in 2003, and the Australian in 2004. All three times, she lost to fellow Belgian Justine Henin-Hardenne.
"She just played great tennis," said Clijsters, who also lost the 2001 French Open final to Jennifer Capriati. "I don't think I played my best tennis in any of those matches. But tomorrow has nothing to do with those matches."
Not after what she went through last year.
Clijsters had surgery in June 2003 to remove a cyst on her left wrist, and missed the last three majors of last year as well as this year's Australian Open. She was at the U.S. Open last year, but it was as a spectator. Sporting a cast, she watched former fiance Lleyton Hewitt lose to Roger Federer in the final.
"There were times definitely last year when I was struggling, especially when doctors were saying, `We don't know if you're going to be able to play that tennis that you have been playing in 2003,'" she said. "That's very frustrating to hear, especially because I'm still young."
Clijsters did come back. With a vengeance.
She's won six titles already, best on the WTA Tour, and has climbed back to No. 4 in the rankings after being down at 134 on March 6. She ran away with the U.S. Open series, winning at Stanford, Los Angeles and Toronto without dropping a set.
"She's done unbelievable this summer, winning so many tournaments," Pierce said. "She's an unbelievable competitor. She's really quick on the court. She's just a great player all around. She's definitely going to be tough to beat."
But Pierce has made a comeback of her own. At 30, she's one of the oldest women on tour, five years removed from her French Open title and 10 from her first major win at the Australian Open.
She reached the French final earlier this summer, only to be routed by Henin-Hardenne. Since then, though, she's won a title, reached the quarterfinals at Wimbledon and made a surprising run at the Open. She knocked off Henin-Hardenne and third-seeded Amelie Mauresmo, then rallied to beat last year's runner-up, Elena Dementieva, in the semifinals Friday.
Pierce needed a controversial 12-minute injury timeout after losing the first set. But she planned to get treatment, and said she'd be fine for Saturday night's final against Clijsters, who has won their only two previous meetings.
"I'm just happy to play anybody right now," Pierce said. "(Winning) would be just unbelievable. It would just be amazing. It would really be amazing."
Clijsters has already said she plans to retire in two years, whether she wins a major or not. Though she's only 22, her body feels much older.
"The way I walk around, everything is hurting," Clijsters said. "My ankles, my wrists — everything is sore and making a lot of noise."
But the self-imposed retirement date isn't putting any added pressure on her.
"It's nice to have that goal," she said. "I'm going to try and give everything I can for the next two years."