Flavia Pennetta is into her first Premier Mandatory final. ( Stephen Dunn/Getty Images)
INDIAN WELLS, Calif. -- No. 21 Flavia Pennetta won the battle of the veterans at the BNP Paribas Open on Friday night, upsetting top seed Li Na 7-6 (5), 6-3 to advance to her first WTA Premier Mandatory final.
The 32-year-old Italian will face No. 4 Agnieszka Radwanska in Sunday's final. Radwanska beat Simona Halep 6-3, 6-4 in a highly entertaining match.
Pennetta's win over Li reads ugly on the stat sheet. Li hit nine double faults and 52 unforced errors, and the two combined for 11 service breaks. Early in the match, Li told her husband to leave the stadium after the two had a disagreement during her warm-up; she needed to usher him away to focus.
Both women described it as a high-quality match, though, and chalked up the mistakes to the need to penetrate the other's defense and go for winners. Once they got into the rallies, Li's firepower and Pennetta's counterpunching combined to produce a number of scintillating rallies.
"We make mistakes, but we make mistakes because we try to find the winner all the time," Pennetta said. "It was good in that way, but of course when you try [for] too much, you make mistakes. We both didn't serve really well, but our returning was amazing. She was really good. All the time I had the pressure when I was serving, and it was the same for her."
The second-ranked Li was surprisingly upbeat after the loss, pleased that she was able to make her first semifinal here since 2007 with the added pressure of being the No. 1 seed in the absence of Serena Williams. She missed last year's tournament with an injury, which means the points she won these past two weeks almost feel like a bonus.
"At least I have a couple matches in Indian Wells," Li said. "And also it is not bad [to make the] semis. Also, I [didn't] lose to a bad player. She played well. So, yeah, nothing to worry about. I still have a couple things I can improve, so I still have couple days to prepare for the next tournament [at the Sony Open next week]."
On Sunday, Pennetta will try to become the first Italian to win Indian Wells. In 2009, she was the first woman from her country to break into the top 10, paving the way for Francesca Schiavone, Sara Errani and Roberta Vinci. But a wrist injury that required surgery in 2012 forced her off the tour and she sank to a low of No. 166 last July.
Earlier this week, Pennetta revealed that it was at this very tournament last year (when she lost to Schiavone in the first round) that she began to seriously consider retirement. She came "very close," she says, to calling it quits, but a fourth-round showing at Wimbledon boosted her confidence. Two months later, she made the U.S. Open semifinals for her best result at a Grand Slam tournament, and followed that up with a quarterfinal appearance at the Australian Open this year. On Monday, she will re-enter the top 15 for the first time in more than three years and could rise to No. 12 if she wins the title.
Pennetta trails Radwanska 4-2, but the Italian is confident from both her Indian Wells run -- which has included victories over Taylor Townsend, Sam Stosur, Camila Giorgi, Sloane Stephens and Li -- and her 6-4, 6-1 win over Radwanska at the Dubai Championships last month.
"I have to be really aggressive," Pennetta said, when asked about Radwanska. "I have to go for a winner but don't rush too much because she's a wall. I have to make seven times the winner against her. But I played really good in Dubai against her, so I hope to play in the same way."
The Radwanska Wall was in full effect against Halep, who will make her top-five debut on Monday. The Pole suffocated Halep with her defense and stymied her with variety, ending a two-match skid to the Romanian.
"She was running unbelievable," Halep said. "I hit the balls strong a few times, and she caught all the balls."
Radwanska is one of only four players to win more than one Premier Mandatory event in the past five years (Williams, Victoria Azarenka and Caroline Wozniacki are the other three). She has never played her best in the desert -- this will be her first final -- and noted that the ball tends to fly more during the day compared to at night. With a day final on Sunday, she'll need to figure out how to play with her hallmark precision.
"I'm looking forward to playing her and having revenge [for the Dubai loss]," Radwanska said.
Prediction: Radwanska in two sets. She should be prepared for Pennetta's style after playing Halep.