Victoria Azarenka beats Flavia Pennetta in U.S. Open semifinals

Friday September 6th, 2013

Victoria Azarenka Victoria Azarenka has advanced to her second U.S. Open final in a row. (Matthew Stockman/Getty Images)

No. 2 Victoria Azarenka defeated Flavia Pennetta 6-4, 6-2 on Friday to advance to the U.S. Open final for the second year in a row.

Azarenka broke Pennetta in eight of nine service games to overcome her own struggles on serve, as the unseeded Italian had five breaks. The match lasted 1 hour, 34 minutes.

Azarenka finished with 15 winners and 25 unforced errors. Pennetta had 19 winners and 23 unforced errors.

The 2012 U.S. Open finalist will face Serena Williams in Sunday's final. Azarenka lost to Williams in last year's final.

Game-by-game analysis of Azarenka's scrappy win after the jump.

Second set

4:20 pm. ET | Victoria Azarenka defeats Flavia Pennetta 6-4, 6-2 to advance to the U.S. Open final.

No problem serving it out this time for Azarenka. Pennetta hits a morale-boosting forehand return winner to get to 40-30, but Azarenka finally puts it away with a forehand approach winner. She's back into the U.S. Open final and will either have a rematch against Li Na, whom she defeated in the Australian Open final, or Serena Williams, whom she lost to in last year's U.S. Open final.

Here's the final stat line for the match:

Azarenka: 0 aces, 56 percent 1st serves in, 6 double faults, 15 winners, 25 unforced errors, 8-for-13 on break points, 20-for-30 at the net.

Pennetta: 1 ace, 44 percent 1st serves in, 3 double faults, 19 winners, 23 unforced errors, 5-for-6 on break points, 12-for-12 at the net.

Pennetta's low-percentage serving got her in trouble. She needed to serve upwards of 60 percent to give herself a chance to hold. Still, a great two weeks for the 31-year-old Italian.

4:14 pm. ET | Pennetta breaks, Azarenka breaks, leads *5-2.

Pennetta gets one break back after smacking two backhand winners to get to deuce on Azarenka's serve. Strong play from Pennetta to finally convert on her second break point of the game and she fires a stare at her box. The intensity is there, but Azarenka's just too solid on the return to really feel threatened.

Indeed, she breaks Pennetta again, though this time Pennetta really broke herself. Four straight unforced errors and she's dumped serve at love. Vika will serve for a spot in the final.

I think it's safe to say that the bloggerati are not enamored of this one:

4:01 pm. ET | Azarenka holds and breaks, leads *4-1.

Azarenka holds for only the third time this afternoon. You have to think that Azarenka's ability to consolidate her break will be enough for her get through in straight sets.

A bit of debate in the Twittersphere over my general assessment that this hasn't been the most enjoyable tennis to watch:

Perrotta's not wrong; aside from the serving woes, there has been some good play at the net and solid hitting all over the court. But I can't help but shake the feeling that it's all felt like such a chore. The positive play has really come from Pennetta, who's willing herself to stay in this with Azarenka, while the favorite just seemed annoyed by it all, as if she's having a bad training session.

As I type, Pennetta throws in her worst service game of the day, littered with unforced errors, and is broken to 4-1. She's served three times in this set and has won one point out of 10 on her second serve.

3:51 pm. ET | Azarenka breaks, leads *2-1.

Azarenka starts the second set with a break. Pennetta has held serve just once in this match. A lot of that has to do with the fact that she's serving at just 48 percent, which is way too low against the Azarenka return. Azarenka is getting so many looks at 80 mph second serves and she's pounding them. Of the 20 second serves Pennetta has put in play, she's won only six of those points.

But if there's one thing you know from watching Pennetta through the years, it's that she never gives up. She plays some tremendous defense to earn a break point in the next game, scrambling all over the court before Azarenka sends a forehand wide. She's fist-pumping while doubled over, sucking air. Despite her fatigue, she converts when Azarenka misses a forehand. Pennetta is now 4-for-4 on break points.

Oh, look, Azarenka broke again. Pennetta slaps her thigh as she misses a backhand into the net and shouts to her box. Azarenka looks like this is just a very joyless experience for everyone involved.

First set

3:35 pm. ET | Azarenka wins the set 6-4.

Azarenka gets a set point at 40-30 and spins in a weak second serve that Pennetta pounds down the line for her ninth winner of the set. Azarenka earns a second set point and Pennetta saves it the best shot she's hit all match, a backhand down the line that clips the line.

Azarenka gets third set point by going with what got her here. She gets to the net to knock in a backhand volley winner, but she gives it away on the next point with a forehand error.

Set point No. 4 for Azarenka after she finally hits her first forehand winner of the match. And then she...double-faults. There's no way around it. This has been an ugly set of tennis from the No. 2.

On her sixth set point of the game, Azarenka finally converts when Pennetta misses a forehand. Mercifully that set is over. Here's hoping it can only get better from Azarenka's end in the next one.

Azarenka is the youngest semifinalist by seven years. (Elsa/Getty Images) Azarenka is the youngest semifinalist by seven years. (Elsa/Getty Images)

Here are the numbers on that set:

Azarenka: 0 aces, 5 double-faults, 8 winners, 18 unforced errors, 4 for 9 on break points, winning less than 45 percent of her service points.

Pennetta: 0 aces, 2 double-faults, 10 winners, 11 unforced errors, 3 for 3 on break points, winning 26 percent of her second serve points.

3:24 pm. ET | Pennetta breaks, Azarenka breaks back and leads *5-4.

Of course as I say that, Azarenka bricks two volleys in her next service game to give Pennetta a break point and the Italian has yet to miss one. She converts when Azarenka sends a backhand long. Pennetta is now 3-for-3 on break point conversions.

We've played eight games and there have been six breaks of serve. Azarenka's winning just 38 percent of her first serves, going a paltry 5-for-13.

Despite her lackluster serving games, Azarenka gets two more break points. Pennetta saves the first with a great forehand volley but she can't save the second. She nets a forehand and Azarenka will serve for the set. For those keeping track at home that would be the seventh break of serve in this set.

Good summation of this match so far:

3:13 pm. ET | Pennetta breaks, Azarenka breaks back and leads *4-3.

So basically no one can hold serve. Azarenka can't hold serve because, well, she can't serve, and Pennetta can't hold serve because Azarenka's returning too well.

Azarenka throws in back-to-back doubles to fall in to a 15-30 hole. Then she throws in two bad backhand errors to hand over the break. She's already getting snippy with herself and her box. A little early for that if you ask me. You never want to let a wily veteran know you're struggling. Pennetta lives for these battles.

But she breaks right back with some more great play at the net. The transitions still look awkward for her, but once she gets herself up there I don't think she's missed a volley. She's won 21 points and a third of them have come at the net.

Pennetta is a three-time U.S. Open quarterfinalist. (Timothy Clary/AFP/Getty Images) Pennetta is a three-time U.S. Open quarterfinalist. (Timothy Clary/AFP/Getty Images)

3:04 pm. ET | Azarenka breaks, leads *3-2.

Azarenka holds despite losing an 18-shot rally that is highlighted by two down-the-line shots from Pennetta, one on the forehand, one on the backhand, and punctuated when she steps into a short ball and crushes a sharp backhand cross court. So far, the Italian is showing she belongs here.

Pennetta gets to 30-30 but two great points from Azarenka, who hasn't hit a groundstroke winner yet, get her the hold. Azarenka's been getting to the net more and more this tournament and I love that development in her game. I consider her the best volleyer in women's tennis -- and a gold medalist in mixed doubles -- and she just has to learn how to transition herself to the net.

After that strong hold, Azarenka breaks Pennetta's serve at love. She's getting better depth on her forehand and Pennetta's already done a lot of running side to side. Azarenka once again gets herself to net numerous times in the game to put away the easy winners. She's already 5-for-7 at the net.

Meanwhile, our favorite new pundit, Mike Joyce, formerly Maria Sharapova's coach, is weighing in on this match:

2:55 pm. ET | Pennetta breaks back and holds, leads 2-1*.

Azarenka's serving woes continue. She's been racking up the double faults since making her post-Wimbledon return at the Southern California Open, and she throws in two doubles in her first game to give Pennetta two break points. The Italian needs just one as she makes a great play on a short net cord and eventually wins on a backhand slice down the line as Azarenka is charging the net.

Azarenka gets two looks to break on Pennetta's next service game, but Pennetta saves them both. She holds.

2:48 pm. ET | Azarenka breaks, *1-0.

Understandable nerves in the first game from Pennetta, who doesn't have the greatest serve and it's not going to be much better if she's a little nervous. Azarenka, the best returner in the game after Serena Williams -- and you'd have a valid argument that she's the best returner considering her consistency -- takes full advantage.

One thing to look out for is whether Pennetta feels confident enough to go down the line on her shots. When she was at her best, in 2009 and 2010, that was the shot that really helped her take control of rallies and open up the court.

2:43 pm. ET | Warm-up

So does the unseeded Italian have a chance here? She's a popular figure in women's tennis, the first Italian woman to make a splash in the rankings and really lead her countrywomen into the small powerhouse they are now, with Francesca Schiavone winning the French Open, Sara Errani breaking into the top five and U.S. Open quarterfinalist Roberta Vinci knocking on the door of the top 10. "Forza Flavia!" used to be the rallying cry of Italian women's tennis and it's great to see her have a career-best result after all her physical struggles over the last year.

This is Pennetta's -- or as I used to call her, "Flava Flav's" -- first time on this stage, but she seems very relaxed during her pre-match interview. I hope the big smile doesn't mean she's just happy to be here. Azarenka is going through her usual pre-match routine. She's got her Beats in, her game face on and stock answers for CBS' Mary Joe Fernandez.

Pennetta will serve first.

Here we go. Ready? Play.


Victoria Azarenka and Flavia Pennetta Victoria Azarenka (left) and Flavia Pennetta are meeting for the first time since 2011. (Getty Images)

No. 2 Victoria Azarenka and Flavia Pennetta will meet in the semifinals of the U.S. Open on Friday. CBS will televise the match, which follows the mixed doubles final and is expected to begin around 2:45 p.m.

Azarenka, 24, is seeking to make her second U.S. Open final in a row. Last year, the Belarusian lost to Serena Williams in the championship match. This year, Azarenka needed three sets to beat Alize Cornet in the third round and Ana Ivanovic in the fourth round before dispatching Daniela Hantuchova 6-2, 6-3 in the quarterfinals.

Pennetta, 31, who is ranked No. 83, is the 13th unseeded Grand Slam semifinalist since the majors went from 16 to 32 seeds in 2001. She hasn't dropped a set in six matches, including victories against fourth-seeded Sara Errani, No. 27 Svetlana Kuznetsova, No. 21 Simona Halep and No. 10 Roberta Vinci.

This is the Italian's best result at a Slam; she's also a three-time quarterfinalist in New York. A year ago, the former world No. 10 had to shut down her season to get wrist surgery and her ranking tumbled from inside the top 20 to outside the top 150. She entered Wimbledon this year ranked No. 166, but after making the fourth round there and the semifinals here, she's poised to move up to at least No. 31.

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