Flavia Pennetta is a Grand Slam semifinalist for the first time at age 31, and in her 41st major tournament.
Unseeded and ranked only 83rd, Pennetta got to the final four at Flushing Meadows with a 6-4, 6-1 victory on Wednesday over fellow Italian, 10th-seeded Roberta Vinci, who happens to be her long-time friend and former doubles partner.
They know each other’s games, and each other’s personalities, perfectly. While Pennetta was laid up after an operation on her right wrist last September, they spoke on the phone and sent text messages back and forth.
“She went through some ugly times,” said Vinci, who lost last year’s US Open quarterfinals to yet another Italian, her current doubles partner Sara Errani.
“But Flavia is strong-headed. She’s stubborn,” Vinci continued, rapping a wooden table with her right fist. “She’s someone who, when she wants something, she wants it all costs, which is the right way to be.”
In Friday’s semifinals, Pennetta will face Victoria Azarenka, a two-time Australian Open champion and last year’s runner-up to Serena Williams at the US Open. The second-seeded Azarenka reached her sixth semifinal in the past eight Grand Slam tournaments by beating 48th-ranked Daniela Hantuchova 6-2, 6-3 on Wednesday night.
The other women’s semifinal will be No. 1 Williams, who owns 16 major titles, against No. 5 Li Na, the 2011 French Open champion.
Back in 2009, Pennetta was the first woman from Italy to be ranked in the top 10. But she was off the tour from August last year until February this year, and dropped down as far as 166th after her comeback began with a 3-7 record.
Her ranking was still too low last month to get directly into the US Open’s main draw, but another player’s withdrawal put Pennetta in the field. Taking full advantage, Pennetta has won five consecutive matches in straight sets, eliminating four seeded players along the way: No. 4 Errani, No. 21 Simona Halep and No. 27 Svetlana Kuznetsova, the 2004 US Open champion, in addition to Vinci.
Pennetta was asked whether when she was recovering from injury at parent’s home in Brindisi, along the Adriatic coast, she could have imagined playing at this level 12 months later.
“I hoped so. It’s what I hoped for at the start of this year, to be honest. It didn’t happen as easily or as quickly as I’d hoped,” she said. “But I definitely hoped.”
Pennetta and Vinci, 30, were two of five thirtysomething women among the eight quarterfinalists in New York, equaling a Grand Slam record for the Open era, which began in 1968. Williams and Li are both 31; Hantuchova is 30.
“I’m a baby. What can I say?” said Azarenka, who is 24.
She was already playing in her 11th career major quarterfinal, and she’s won her past seven in a row. Both she and Hantuchova were shaky early, but immediately after Azarenka double-faulted twice in a row while serving at 3-2, she took 10 consecutive points en route to winning the first set. There were more wobbles later for Azarenka, such as a double-fault to get broken while serving for the match at 5-3 in the second.
Still, she held on and improved to 30-1 on hard courts this season, including a victory over Williams in the final of a tuneup tournament last month. Azarenka is the only woman to beat Williams twice this season.
In the first men’s quarterfinal on Wednesday, No. 8 Richard Gasquet of France edged No. 5 David Ferrer of Spain 6-3, 6-1, 4-6, 2-6, 6-3. Gasquet reached his first Grand Slam semifinal since making it that far at Wimbledon six years ago. He’s also the first Frenchman in the final four at the US Open since Cedric Pioline in 1999.
Gasquet was playing in only the second major quarterfinal of his career, having been 1-15 in fourth-round matches until getting past No. 10 Milos Raonic on Monday, also in five sets. Gasquet is 7-12 in matches that go the distance, a far cry from Ferrer’s 19-10 mark.
“Even if I was leading two sets to love, I knew it was David Ferrer. I knew he’s a big fighter,” Gasquet said. “So I knew it was not over.”
But after evening the match at two sets apiece, it was Ferrer who faltered down the stretch. Ferrer, the runner-up to Rafael Nadal at the French Open in July, played a loose game while down 3-2 in the fifth, including a double-fault on break point.
“I played, I believe, very bad in that game,” said Ferrer, who had been 8-1 against Gasquet. “I lost, a little bit, my focus in that moment.”
Gasquet will now face No. 2 Nadal, a 12-time major champion, or No. 19 Tommy Robredo, who upset Roger Federer in the fourth round. Nadal was to face Robredo in Wednesday night’s last match.
Gasquet is 2-2 against Robredo, and 0-10 against Nadal.
“Last time I beat him, I was 13,” Gasquet said, referring to a junior match he’s seen video of on YouTube. “It was a long time ago.”
Pennetta and Vinci have known each other, and played against each other, since they were about 10.
“We spent so much time together,” Pennetta said.
When Wednesday’s match ended, she and Pennetta met at the net and hugged.
Vinci gave Pennetta a kiss on the cheek and told her, “Brava.”
Pennetta was convinced their relationship influenced the outcome Wednesday. In sum, she explained, she handled the circumstances better than Vinci, if only barely.
“In the beginning, we didn’t play good tennis. I was tight. She was tight,” Pennetta said. “When I won the first set, I just (relaxed) a little bit and tried to play better. But the day was tough for both of us.”