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Azarenka plays just well enough against Pennetta to reach finals

Photo: Matthew Stockman/Getty Images

Victoria Azarenka won 69 points to Flavia Pennetta's 54 during their U.S. Open semifinal match.

Three quick thoughts from No. 2 Victoria Azarenka's 6-4, 6-2 victory against unseeded Flavia Pennetta in the first of the U.S. Open women's semifinals on Friday.

Azarenka survives and advances. After defeating Serena Williams in Cincinnati last month and being hailed as a U.S. Open favorite in many quarters, Azarenka has seldom played her best tennis in New York. She struggled for parts of her match Friday against a lesser opponent, getting broken five times in nine service games. But, as she has done all tournament, Azarenka played well enough at the right times and did her part to set up the much-anticipated rematch of last year's final with Williams (who went on to beat Li Na 6-0, 6-3 in the second semifinal).

Survive-and-advance tennis, we might call it. After a shaky first set that saw her commit 18 unforced errors to eight winners, and squander five set points before finally closing, Azarenka found the range on her shots and, in turn, her confidence and ran out the match in businesslike fashion. She broke Pennetta on eight of the Italian's nine service games.

Brava, Flavia. This was a career result for Pennetta, a WTA veteran who's had quite a textured career. Even in defeat Friday, she offered a fine display of her all-court skills, her elegant game and her fighting instincts. She's in her early 30s, but is healthy and happy. The question now becomes: Was this a wonderful one-off, or can she build on this and return to the sport's upper reaches?

Two views of Azarenka. Tennis is often a sport of framing. No, not shanking balls off the body of the racket -- which we witnessed several times in this match. Rather, the mental framing of circumstances and conditions. The cynic might point out that Azarenka's level has dropped markedly since her title in Cincinnati last month. Despite a fairly soft draw that required her to play no top-10 seeds in her first six matches, she dropped two sets, averaged more errors than winners and played nervously for long stretches. (One example among many: her double faulting on set point against Pennetta.)

On the other hand, you might frame it more charitably: Despite playing pedestrian tennis, she has found escape hatches and managed to win six matches. That's what the great ones do. And suddenly, she is only two sets removed from winning her third career Grand Slam title and her second in 2013. For her sake, her level will have to improve dramatically for that to happen, but credit Azarenka for putting herself in this position.

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