By Howard Fendrich
The Associated Press
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 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.”