US Open 2013 semi-final preview: Victoria Azarenka vs Flavia Pennetta

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In the first of the women’s semi-finals, second seed Victoria Azarenka (Player Profile) will take on surprise package Flavia Pennetta (Player Profile) for a place in the US Open showpiece. The Azarenka vs Pennetta Head to Head stands at 1-1.

It’s safe to say that this is not the last four match-up we expected when the draw was made two weeks ago. Although Azarenka was hotly tipped to come through her quarter – she has lost only one hard court match all year and looked to be in great shape in Cincinnati – Pennetta’s excellent form has come from nowhere. Currently ranked 83rd after undergoing wrist surgery last year, the 31-year-old has rediscovered the tennis that took her to the top ten four years ago. Yet to drop a set in New York, she blitzed Sara Errani and her doubles partner Roberta Vinci, was too steady for big-hitting former champion Svetlana Kuznetsova, and held firm after a distracting rain delay to see off one of the tournament’s dark horses, Simona Halep.

Pennetta has always been known as a clean ball striker, and as a former doubles number one she is extremely capable at the net. But what has been most impressive about the Italian this fortnight is her self-belief. Despite not going deep at a Grand Slam for two years and winning only three hard court matches in 2013, she has looked confident and assured in New York. Moreover, she has employed exactly the right tactics in each of her five rounds so far and kept her opponents under constant pressure with brilliant returning.

Azarenka, on the other hand, has not been at her imperious best. After handing a double bagel to Dinah Pfizenmaier in the opening round, she lost serve three times against journeywoman Alexandra Wozniack, and was pushed to three sets by Alize Cornet and Ana Ivanovic. In both of those matches, she threw in a plethora of double faults, hit more errors than winners and looked dissatisfied throughout.

Yet in her quarter-final clash with Daniela Hantuchova, the Australian Open champion raised her level considerably. Although still far from dominant on serve, she kept the unforced errors under control and bossed points from the back of the court. Most encouragingly, she won 12 of 13 points at the net – the area she needs to own if she is to win a maiden US Open title this year.

So with Azarenka peaking at the right time, she’ll be the heavy favourite to end Pennetta’s dream run later today. The pair have split their two previous matches, but both of those were played before Azarenka became a mentally sound Grand Slam champion. With the final in her sights, the world number two will aim to step up the court and mix up the rallies to keep the savvy Pennetta guessing. Even if Azarenka plays as she did against Ivanovic and Cornet, Pennetta will have to have an excellent serving day and stay remarkably consistent from the baseline to have a chance. This should be a high-quality semi-final with some inspired exchanges, but Azarenka has too many options and should come through in straight sets.

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