Final berth not a given for top seeds
NEW YORK -- To hope for a US Open women's final between Serena Williams and Victoria Azarenka, a rematch of one of the most closely contested US Open finals in years, is certainly understandable. But to count on it? Not so fast.
In one semifinal Friday, No. 2 seed Azarenka must get past Italy's Flavia Pennetta, a seemingly easy proposition against the 83rd-ranked player in the world. But while Azarenka has struggled to find her form in an uneven tournament thus far, needing two straight three-setters to get past No. 26 Alize Cornet and No. 13 Ana Ivanovic in third- and fourth-round matches, respectively, Pennetta has yet to lose a set here, eliminating four seeded players in five matches.
"I'm confident because I'm here," Pennetta said. "I have nothing to lose."
Indeed, Pennetta comes off a year in which a right-wrist injury that required surgery kept her out of the 2012 US Open, and this is her first Grand Slam semifinal.
"She went through some ugly times," said good friend and 10th-seeded Roberta Vinci, who lost to Pennetta in the quarterfinals. "But Flavia is strong-headed. She's stubborn. She's someone who, when she wants something, she wants it at all costs... "
But the numbers in Azarenka's favor are daunting: two-time Grand Slam champion; three-time Slam semifinalist in 2013; 12-1 at the US Open over the last two years and 38-1 on outdoor hard courts since losing to Williams in the finals here last year.
While Pennetta, 31, has formidable skills and is an all-court player, she has struggled with her nerves in tight matches. This shortcoming becomes especially daunting against Azarenka, one of the most mentally tough players on tour.
Yet Azarenka, 24, who has yet to play a top-10 seed here, is 1-1 versus Pennetta, losing in Dubai in 2011 on a hard court.
"That match was a bad memory there," Azarenka said of Dubai. "But I think it's going to be different."
Li Na has similar hopes for her semifinal, but her opponent claims she has not yet peaked in the tournament, which is a scary thought.
Williams has yet to lose a set, including her 6-0, 6-0 quarterfinal victory over Carla Suarez Navarro, and has dropped the fewest games en route to the semifinals (13) while spending the least amount of time on court in the women's draw (an average of 68 minutes per win).
She is also 65-4 in matches this year, with eight singles titles, which equals her career-best single season (in 2002 she also won eight). And since Wimbledon 2012, Williams is a staggering 96-5, with 13 singles titles, including three of the last five grand slams plus the London Olympics.
Li, the first Chinese woman to reach a US Open semifinal, said she was nervous in her three-set quarterfinal win over Ekaterina Makarova but will feel no pressure against Williams, to whom she lost a hard-fought 7-5, 7-5 decision in the semis at Cincinnati last month.
"I mean, it's semis, only four players [are] at the end of the tournament, so nothing you can worry about," Li said. "Just play tennis, just enjoy the time."
It will obviously be more enjoyable if she can continue to neutralize Williams' power, as Li has done in the past. Though Li has defeated Williams only once (on hard court) in their nine previous matches, 10 of 21 sets have gone 12 games or more.
"She's been playing me really close," Williams said. "Who knows? Maybe the next time we play she might want to go from close to a win, so I have to be ready for that. ... She's a great challenge. She moves really well. She does everything well. The challenge of playing someone like her is, how do you beat a player that does everything so well?"
Azarenka said she has tried to watch some of Williams' matches here, but it's not easy.
"She played too quick, all the matches," she said.
What Azarenka is not doing, she said, is allowing herself to think about a rematch with Williams in the finals. But others are doing it for her.
"Of course, on paper, that would be the best final for this Grand Slam -- one versus two," said Williams' coach, Patrick Mouratoglou. "That's what everyone hopes for, and I think both players are ready for that."