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Azarenka to face Pennetta in US Open semifinals

  • Victoria Azarenka, of Belarus, returns a shot to Daniela Hantuchova, of Slovakia, during a quarterfinal of the U.S. Open tennis tournament Wednesday, Sept. 4, 2013, in New York. (AP Photo/Darron Cummings)

    Victoria Azarenka, of Belarus, returns a shot to Daniela Hantuchova, of Slovakia, during a quarterfinal of the U.S. Open tennis tournament Wednesday, Sept. 4, 2013, in New York. (AP Photo/Darron Cummings)

  • Flavia Pennetta, of Italy, returns a shot to Roberta Vinci, of Italy, during the quarterfinals of the 2013 U.S. Open tennis tournament, Wednesday, Sept. 4, 2013, in New York. (AP Photo/Kathy Willens)

    Flavia Pennetta, of Italy, returns a shot to Roberta Vinci, of Italy, during the quarterfinals of the 2013 U.S. Open tennis tournament, Wednesday, Sept. 4, 2013, in New York. (AP Photo/Kathy Willens)

  • Victoria Azarenka, of Belarus, returns a shot to Daniela Hantuchova, of Slovakia, during the quarterfinals of the U.S. Open tennis tournament, Wednesday, Sept. 4, 2013, in New York. (AP Photo/Mike Groll)

    Victoria Azarenka, of Belarus, returns a shot to Daniela Hantuchova, of Slovakia, during the quarterfinals of the U.S. Open tennis tournament, Wednesday, Sept. 4, 2013, in New York. (AP Photo/Mike Groll)

  • Flavia Pennetta, of Italy, reacts to her coaches box after beating Roberta Vinci, of Italy, during the quarterfinals of the 2013 U.S. Open tennis tournament, Wednesday, Sept. 4, 2013, in New York. (AP Photo/Kathy Willens)

    Flavia Pennetta, of Italy, reacts to her coaches box after beating Roberta Vinci, of Italy, during the quarterfinals of the 2013 U.S. Open tennis tournament, Wednesday, Sept. 4, 2013, in New York. (AP Photo/Kathy Willens)

  • Flavia Pennetta, of Italy, left, greets Roberta Vinci, of Italy, at the net after winning their quarterfinal match of the 2013 U.S. Open tennis tournament, Wednesday, Sept. 4, 2013, in New York. (AP Photo/Kathy Willens)

    Flavia Pennetta, of Italy, left, greets Roberta Vinci, of Italy, at the net after winning their quarterfinal match of the 2013 U.S. Open tennis tournament, Wednesday, Sept. 4, 2013, in New York. (AP Photo/Kathy Willens)

  • Victoria Azarenka, of Belarus, returns a shot to Daniela Hantuchova, of Slovakia, during a quarterfinal of the U.S. Open tennis tournament Wednesday, Sept. 4, 2013, in New York. (AP Photo/Darron Cummings)

    Victoria Azarenka, of Belarus, returns a shot to Daniela Hantuchova, of Slovakia, during a quarterfinal of the U.S. Open tennis tournament Wednesday, Sept. 4, 2013, in New York. (AP Photo/Darron Cummings)

  • Roberta Vinci, of Italy, returns a shot to Flavia Pennetta, of Italy, during the quarterfinals of the 2013 U.S. Open tennis tournament, Wednesday, Sept. 4, 2013, in New York. (AP Photo/Julio Cortez)

    Roberta Vinci, of Italy, returns a shot to Flavia Pennetta, of Italy, during the quarterfinals of the 2013 U.S. Open tennis tournament, Wednesday, Sept. 4, 2013, in New York. (AP Photo/Julio Cortez)

  • Flavia Pennetta, of Italy, returns a shot to Roberta Vinci, of Italy, during the quarterfinals of the 2013 U.S. Open tennis tournament, Wednesday, Sept. 4, 2013, in New York. (AP Photo/Kathy Willens)

    Flavia Pennetta, of Italy, returns a shot to Roberta Vinci, of Italy, during the quarterfinals of the 2013 U.S. Open tennis tournament, Wednesday, Sept. 4, 2013, in New York. (AP Photo/Kathy Willens)

  • Richard Gasquet, of France, reacts after defeating David Ferrer, of Spain, during the quarterfinals of the 2013 U.S. Open tennis tournament, Wednesday, Sept. 4, 2013, in New York. (AP Photo/Julio Cortez)

    Richard Gasquet, of France, reacts after defeating David Ferrer, of Spain, during the quarterfinals of the 2013 U.S. Open tennis tournament, Wednesday, Sept. 4, 2013, in New York. (AP Photo/Julio Cortez)

  • David Ferrer of Spain, right, returns a shot to Richard Gasquet, of France, during the quarterfinals of the 2013 U.S. Open tennis tournament, Wednesday, Sept. 4, 2013, in New York. (AP Photo/Julio Cortez)

    David Ferrer of Spain, right, returns a shot to Richard Gasquet, of France, during the quarterfinals of the 2013 U.S. Open tennis tournament, Wednesday, Sept. 4, 2013, in New York. (AP Photo/Julio Cortez)

  • David Ferrer, of Spain, misses a shot by Richard Gasquet, of France, during the quarterfinals of the 2013 U.S. Open tennis tournament, Wednesday, Sept. 4, 2013, in New York. (AP Photo/Julio Cortez)

    David Ferrer, of Spain, misses a shot by Richard Gasquet, of France, during the quarterfinals of the 2013 U.S. Open tennis tournament, Wednesday, Sept. 4, 2013, in New York. (AP Photo/Julio Cortez)

  • Richard Gasquet, of France, returns a shot to David Ferrer, of Spain, during the quarterfinals of the 2013 U.S. Open tennis tournament, Wednesday, Sept. 4, 2013, in New York. (AP Photo/Kathy Willens)

    Richard Gasquet, of France, returns a shot to David Ferrer, of Spain, during the quarterfinals of the 2013 U.S. Open tennis tournament, Wednesday, Sept. 4, 2013, in New York. (AP Photo/Kathy Willens)

  • Richard Gasquet, of France, returns a shot to David Ferrer, of Spain, during the quarterfinals of the 2013 U.S. Open tennis tournament, Wednesday, Sept. 4, 2013, in New York. (AP Photo/Kathy Willens)

    Richard Gasquet, of France, returns a shot to David Ferrer, of Spain, during the quarterfinals of the 2013 U.S. Open tennis tournament, Wednesday, Sept. 4, 2013, in New York. (AP Photo/Kathy Willens)

  • David Ferrer, of Spain, returns a shot Richard Gasquet, of France, during the quarterfinals of the 2013 U.S. Open tennis tournament, Wednesday, Sept. 4, 2013, in New York. (AP Photo/Kathy Willens)

    David Ferrer, of Spain, returns a shot Richard Gasquet, of France, during the quarterfinals of the 2013 U.S. Open tennis tournament, Wednesday, Sept. 4, 2013, in New York. (AP Photo/Kathy Willens)

  • Daniela Hantuchova, of Slovakia, watches a serve to Victoria Azarenka, of Belarus, during a quarterfinal of the U.S. Open tennis tournament Wednesday, Sept. 4, 2013, in New York. (AP Photo/Darron Cummings)

    Daniela Hantuchova, of Slovakia, watches a serve to Victoria Azarenka, of Belarus, during a quarterfinal of the U.S. Open tennis tournament Wednesday, Sept. 4, 2013, in New York. (AP Photo/Darron Cummings)

  • Flavia Pennetta, of Italy, returns a shot to Roberta Vinci, of Italy, during the quarterfinals of the 2013 U.S. Open tennis tournament, Wednesday, Sept. 4, 2013, in New York. (AP Photo/Kathy Willens)

    Flavia Pennetta, of Italy, returns a shot to Roberta Vinci, of Italy, during the quarterfinals of the 2013 U.S. Open tennis tournament, Wednesday, Sept. 4, 2013, in New York. (AP Photo/Kathy Willens)

  • Victoria Azarenka, of Belarus, returns a shot to Daniela Hantuchova, of Slovakia, during a quarterfinal of the U.S. Open tennis tournament Wednesday, Sept. 4, 2013, in New York. (AP Photo/Darron Cummings)
  • Flavia Pennetta, of Italy, returns a shot to Roberta Vinci, of Italy, during the quarterfinals of the 2013 U.S. Open tennis tournament, Wednesday, Sept. 4, 2013, in New York. (AP Photo/Kathy Willens)
  • Victoria Azarenka, of Belarus, returns a shot to Daniela Hantuchova, of Slovakia, during the quarterfinals of the U.S. Open tennis tournament, Wednesday, Sept. 4, 2013, in New York. (AP Photo/Mike Groll)
  • Flavia Pennetta, of Italy, reacts to her coaches box after beating Roberta Vinci, of Italy, during the quarterfinals of the 2013 U.S. Open tennis tournament, Wednesday, Sept. 4, 2013, in New York. (AP Photo/Kathy Willens)
  • Flavia Pennetta, of Italy, left, greets Roberta Vinci, of Italy, at the net after winning their quarterfinal match of the 2013 U.S. Open tennis tournament, Wednesday, Sept. 4, 2013, in New York. (AP Photo/Kathy Willens)
  • Victoria Azarenka, of Belarus, returns a shot to Daniela Hantuchova, of Slovakia, during a quarterfinal of the U.S. Open tennis tournament Wednesday, Sept. 4, 2013, in New York. (AP Photo/Darron Cummings)
  • Roberta Vinci, of Italy, returns a shot to Flavia Pennetta, of Italy, during the quarterfinals of the 2013 U.S. Open tennis tournament, Wednesday, Sept. 4, 2013, in New York. (AP Photo/Julio Cortez)
  • Flavia Pennetta, of Italy, returns a shot to Roberta Vinci, of Italy, during the quarterfinals of the 2013 U.S. Open tennis tournament, Wednesday, Sept. 4, 2013, in New York. (AP Photo/Kathy Willens)
  • Richard Gasquet, of France, reacts after defeating David Ferrer, of Spain, during the quarterfinals of the 2013 U.S. Open tennis tournament, Wednesday, Sept. 4, 2013, in New York. (AP Photo/Julio Cortez)
  • David Ferrer of Spain, right, returns a shot to Richard Gasquet, of France, during the quarterfinals of the 2013 U.S. Open tennis tournament, Wednesday, Sept. 4, 2013, in New York. (AP Photo/Julio Cortez)
  • David Ferrer, of Spain, misses a shot by Richard Gasquet, of France, during the quarterfinals of the 2013 U.S. Open tennis tournament, Wednesday, Sept. 4, 2013, in New York. (AP Photo/Julio Cortez)
  • Richard Gasquet, of France, returns a shot to David Ferrer, of Spain, during the quarterfinals of the 2013 U.S. Open tennis tournament, Wednesday, Sept. 4, 2013, in New York. (AP Photo/Kathy Willens)
  • Richard Gasquet, of France, returns a shot to David Ferrer, of Spain, during the quarterfinals of the 2013 U.S. Open tennis tournament, Wednesday, Sept. 4, 2013, in New York. (AP Photo/Kathy Willens)
  • David Ferrer, of Spain, returns a shot Richard Gasquet, of France, during the quarterfinals of the 2013 U.S. Open tennis tournament, Wednesday, Sept. 4, 2013, in New York. (AP Photo/Kathy Willens)
  • Daniela Hantuchova, of Slovakia, watches a serve to Victoria Azarenka, of Belarus, during a quarterfinal of the U.S. Open tennis tournament Wednesday, Sept. 4, 2013, in New York. (AP Photo/Darron Cummings)
  • Flavia Pennetta, of Italy, returns a shot to Roberta Vinci, of Italy, during the quarterfinals of the 2013 U.S. Open tennis tournament, Wednesday, Sept. 4, 2013, in New York. (AP Photo/Kathy Willens)

NEW YORK – 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 yesterday 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 today’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, last 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.

In the first men’s quarterfinal yesterday, 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 U.S. 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, who powered his way back to the semifinals at Flushing Meadows, overwhelming 19th-seeded Tommy Robredo, 6-0, 6-2, 6-2.

“I think I played my best match at the U.S. Open this year. Great to be able to play your best match in the quarterfinals,” Nadal said. “Playing a little better every day is a great feeling.”

The second-seeded Nadal improved to 20-0 on hard courts in 2013, part of an overall record of 58-3 with nine titles, including his record eighth championship at the French Open in June. At the next Grand Slam tournament, though, Nadal flopped, exiting in the first round at Wimbledon.

That surprising defeat, against a guy ranked 135th, came on June 24. Feels like eons ago. Nadal hasn’t lost a match to anyone since. His 12 major trophies include the 2010 U.S. Open, and he has reached at least the semifinals the past five times he entered the tournament. Nadal did not come to New York in 2012, part of about a seven-month absence due mainly to a left knee problem.

The Gasquet-Ferrer match took nearly 3½ hours, and was filled with plenty of ebbs and flows. Nadal, meanwhile, was never challenged even the slightest bit by Robredo, who was coming off a fourth-round upset of 17-time Grand Slam champion Roger Federer. That stunning result scuttled the possibility of a Nadal-Federer showdown, which would have been the rivals’ 32nd meeting on tour, but first at the U.S. Open.

Robredo had been 0-10 against Federer before finally beating him Monday. Perhaps that allowed Robredo to enter yesterday believing he’d have a chance against Nadal, despite an 0-6 mark in their previous matches.

So much for that. This one lasted 1 hour, 40 minutes, and it really was over after 22 minutes. That’s how long it took Nadal to dominate the first set, not only winning every game but also 24 of 29 points, including all seven that lasted 10 strokes or more.

“He was up very quick,” said Robredo, who is 0-7 in Grand Slam quarterfinals, “and then there was nothing else to do. He was too good.”

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