NEW YORK (AP) — A year ago, Flavia Pennetta was hanging out at her parents’ home on Italy’s heel, recovering from right wrist surgery, watching the U.S. Open on TV — and wondering how long it would take her to get back on the tennis tour.
Look at her now.
Pennetta is a Grand Slam semifinalist for the first time at age 31, and in her 41st major tournament. Unseeded, ranked only 83rd, Pennetta got to the final four at Flushing Meadows with a 6-4, 6-1 victory Wednesday over another 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 her operation last September, they spoke on the phone and sent text messages back and forth.
“She went through some ugly times,” said Vinci, who lost in last year’s U.S. 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 U.S. 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 2012 until February 2013, 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 U.S. 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 U.S. Open champion, in addition to Vinci.
Pennetta was asked whether when she was staying with her folks 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, tying 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 already was 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.
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.
She was convinced that relationship influenced the outcome Wednesday. In sum, Pennetta 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.”
Truth is, Vinci did not play well, accumulating twice as many unforced errors, 28, as winners, 14.
She stuck to her usual strategy, which involves plenty of rushing the net, but she won only 18 of 34 points when she moved forward.
Vinci is that rare top player in women’s tennis who tries to volley frequently.
“This my kind of tennis. I cannot play (a) different style. I’m happy that I’m different,” Vinci said, using her fingers to make air quotes as she said the final word.
Later, she explained: “Even if I was making errors, I needed to try to play my game.”
Given their long history on and off the court, Pennetta said, “I know how she plays.”
A reporter pointed out to Vinci that she is 0-2 in Grand Slam quarterfinals, and both of the losses came at the U.S. Open against Italians she’s close to: She and Errani are the defending women’s doubles champions in New York, and will face the Williams sisters in this year’s quarterfinals.
Vinci was able to laugh at that, at least.
“See? I’m good-hearted,” Vinci said. “I let them move on.”
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.”
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