Victoria Azarenka is in the women’s semifinals at the 2013 U.S. Open, surprising absolutely no one. Her opponent, however, is a shock to just about everyone.
The tournament’s second seed will take on unseeded Flavia Pennetta in one of two semifinal matches on Friday with a trip to Sunday’s finals hanging in the balance.
For Pennetta, it’s a career-defining opportunity that comes on the heels of a wrist injury that robbed her of the chance to play in last year’s U.S. Open. Not only has Pennetta never reached a Grand Slam final before, she’s preparing to play in her first semifinal in the sport’s biggest events.
To get here, the veteran Italian bested fellow-countrywoman Roberta Vinci 6-4, 6-1 on Wednesday. Three previous times the 83rd-ranked player has reached the quarterfinals at the U.S. Open, but she’s now headed to uncharted territory against one of the sport’s hottest players.
That player is Azarenka, who is one win away from a second straight U.S. Open final and perhaps an opportunity to avenge a three-set loss to Serena Williams last year.
The talented 24-year-old improved upon a couple of uneven performances with a dominating showing over Daniela Hantuchova in the quarterfinals on Wednesday. The Belarus native defeated her 48th-ranked opponent 6-2, 6-3 to reach her second Slam final of the year.
Azarenka is now 30-1 on the hard courts this season and is looking to add a third Slam title to her growing resume this weekend.
To do that, however, Vika will have to get past Pennetta, who hasn't lost a set this entire tournament en route to taking out four seeded players in five matches.
Indeed, it may not be the semifinal match most expected, but with the 31-year-old laughing in the face of expectations and Azarenka fighting to live up to them, the stakes will be high when they take the court on Friday.
Not only has Azarenka and Pennetta met on the tennis court only twice, they haven’t done so in more than two years.
Ironically, the two were scheduled to face off in the second round at Wimbledon earlier this summer, but the world No. 2 was forced to retire due to injury. As a result, Pennetta advanced to the fourth round, her best showing in a Slam this year until her strong run through the Open.
The other two meetings between Friday’s opponents were essentially a draw. Pennetta won the last time the two crossed paths at Dubai back in July 2011. That match, played on hard courts, went three sets with the Italian dropping a second-set tiebreaker only to rebound to win the decisive third set 6-4.
The first match between the two took place at Stuttgart back in 2010 and was dominated by Azarenka. The Belarus native easily bested Pennetta on the German clay 6-1, 6-4.
So with such little history to go on and not a bit of it recent, Friday’s test between the two streaking players has a strong sense of the unknown.
That said, it’s clear Azarenka is having the best summer of her rising career and Pennetta is having the finest Slam of hers.
Which of the two gets the best of their third actual head-to-head battle, however, is going to be a fun outcome to watch come Friday.
It’s safe to say very few experts expected to see Pennetta in the U.S. Open semifinals, but there’s no arguing that the surprising Italian has earned her way to this significant career achievement.
The 83rd-ranked player dominated fellow countrywoman and 10th-seeded Roberta Vinci on Wednesday to complete an unexpected run to her first Grand Slam semifinal.
Fully recovered from an injury that kept her out of last year’s U.S. Open, Pennetta made headlines in the tournament’s first week by besting fourth-seeded Sara Errani, also an Italian, in the second round.
She brought that same form with her into the quarterfinal showdown with Vinci, waxing the 30-year-old 6-4, 6-1 in a match that took just 65 minutes to complete.
Pennetta has advanced to the quarterfinal three times before at the U.S. Open—the most recent coming two years ago—but never before has she enjoyed this type of run through a Slam.
The 31-year-old, who in 2009 became the first Italian women’s player to crack the top 10 before injuries pushed her back, hasn't dropped a set at Flushing Meadows. Given her strong form, she’s a now a threat to muck up the much-anticipated final between Serena and Azarenka, the tournament’s top two seeds, respectively.
In five matches, the Italian has beaten four seeded players and only once has she even been pushed to a tiebreaker.
Through it all, her all-court game has been on full display, as she has controlled tempo with her solid groundstrokes and stayed out of any significant trouble by avoiding a rash of unforced errors.
The end result is a breakthrough opportunity against the world’s second-hottest player and a chance to reach the first final in her otherwise under-the-radar career.
Considering she played her way into the semifinals Wednesday night with a straight-sets victory over Hantuchova, it’s hard to quiver with what Azarenka has accomplished in this U.S. Open.
That said, it’s been anything but a smooth ride at Flushing Meadows for the No. 2 seed.
In her two matches leading up to the quarterfinals, Azarenka dropped the first set and was forced to scramble from behind in order to advance.
During those matches, the world’s second-ranked woman suffered multiple breaks of serve and struggled at times with her baseline game, which is typically one of her strengths.
On Wednesday, however, the talented 24-year-old was solid with her return of serve and had better control of her groundstrokes against her friend and sometimes practice partner Hantuchova. She also mixed things up nicely with multiple drop shots in the 6-2, 6-3 victory.
As a result, Vika is now 30-1 on hard courts this year and sits just one match shy of a second straight trip to the U.S. Open finals. Azarenka lost to Williams in a epic three-set battle last year.
If Wednesday’s match was any indication, the talented player from Belarus has moved past her earlier struggles and is well prepared for a showdown with the surprising Pennetta on Friday.
Since her disappointing three-set loss to Serena in last year’s U.S. Open final, Azarenka has been pointing toward a return to the championship match this year.
Now that she is just one win shy of that goal, the question is whether Azarenka can relax and show patience against a much lower-seeded and unexpected opponent in Pennetta in the semifinals.
Vika has been off her game at times in this Open and needs to make sure she doesn't look past her 83rd-ranked opponent and ahead to a potential rematch with the world’s No. 1 player.
The 24-year-old has a tendency to get frustrated and down on herself at times and will need to avoid that, especially if she struggles early in the match.
Pennetta is playing some of the best tennis of her career and hasn't lost a set the entire tournament. Given that, if Azarenka isn't completely dialed in on Friday and gets caught peeking ahead, the Italian might just add a fifth seeded player to her list of U.S Open casualties.
For her part, Pennetta has reached uncharted territory at this U.S. Open.
After moving past recent injuries that cost her a spot in last year’s Open, the Italian has advanced to her first Grand Slam semifinal and will certainly feel pressure like she never has before against the world’s second-ranked player on Arthur Ashe Court.
The 31-year-old has proved during her surprising run that she has the game to compete, but the stakes have never been this high in her long career. Given that, it’s fair to question how she will respond when things get started.
Pennetta needs a strong start if she is going to hang around and have a shot at the upset, but if nerves take away her accuracy and footwork early on, that could prove very difficult indeed.
Quite frankly, Pennetta will need some help from Azarenka and a near-flawless performance of her own to advance to her first Grand Slam final.
Given the up-and-down nature of Azarenka’s game at Flushing Meadows and just how well the Italian has played in cruising through the draw, that’s not an impossibility.
To pull the upset, the 31-year-old will have to control the points by moving the No. 2 seed around the court and limiting her angles with well-placed groundstrokes.
If she can pin her behind the baseline often enough, especially on her own serve, Pennetta will limit the effectiveness of Vika’s strong backhand and thus extend points further than her opponent would like.
The first-time Slam semifinalist will also have to do what Hantuchova couldn't do on Wednesday—get off to a fast start against the Belarus star.
Azarenka has struggled early in two of her past three matches, especially with her serve, and if the Italian can get ahead early, she can apply further pressure on those service games.
Ultimately, with the 24-year-old having played so inconsistently despite her deep run, Pennetta has to keep her out of rhythm and hope frustration and impatience gets the better of the world’s second-ranked player.
If that happens, the Italian has every chance to push the match into a decisive third set, and at that point, anything is possible.
First and foremost, Azarenka needs to get off to a strong start to chip away at the significant confidence Pennetta has gained during this unexpected run to the Open semifinals.
Twice already in this Open fortnight the rising star from Belarus has given early hope to lesser opponents by dropping the opening set. She would do well to avoid that type of opening on Friday against her veteran opponent.
The world No. 2 can do that with her powerful return of serve, which, if on, will put significant pressure on the Italian’s service game. Pennetta is active and athletic, but if Azarenka can place her on the defensive immediately, she will be able to keep her from the middle of the court where the Italian prefers to work.
As obvious as it might sound, Azarenka needs to be equally strong with her own service game to get past Pennetta. The No. 2 seed has struggled with that part of her game at times, especially against Ana Ivanovic in the round of 16.
Vika managed to break her opponent multiple times in the second and third sets, only to give the advantage back time and again. The end result was a tight battle that went to 6-4 in the third.
She was better Wednesday against Hantuchova but still needs to improve her serving performance to get past the semis and have any chance against likely finals opponent Serena.
Bottom line, Azarenka owns the advantage with her powerful groundstrokes—especially from the backhand—and her service-return game. She needs to win the battle in those two areas to claim the war on Friday.
It’s been an unexpected but much-appreciated run for the veteran Pennetta in this year’s U.S. Open.
On Friday, however, it comes to an end. As well as the Italian has played, Azarenka is not only the better player but the more determined one as well.
Since the Open began more than 10 days ago, the No. 2 seed has been on a collision course toward a finals rematch with Serena. Given that, she will take care of business in straight sets against her 31-year-old opponent in the semifinals and advance to her second Slam final of 2013.
Vika has been anything but dominant in her past three matches, but with her strong service return and all-court game, headlined by an at times devastating backhand, she will prove too much for Pennetta.
The 24-year-old needs a stellar showing to prove she’s ready to win her first U.S. Open and third career Slam, and that will be more than enough motivation to keep her focused on the task at hand before looking ahead to the next challenge.
If Williams does the same against Li Na, Azarenka will have that shot to avenge the three-set loss she suffered last year. Even better, we will have the women’s final desired since the Open began.