NEW YORK—Victoria Azarenka swooped forward to greet the ball in mid-air and smacked a forehand swing volley winner to reach match point.
On a day when holding serve was a struggle, Azarenka used her whiplash strokes to maintain her grip on the match. The second seed broke serve seven times in a row to seal a 6-4, 6-2 victory over Flavia Pennetta and reach her second straight U.S. Open final.
She didn't play a clean match and her serve was hardly convincing, but Azarenka did what she’s done best during this tournament: Compete with vigor and win when her best tennis eluded her. The world No. 2 raised her 2013 hard-court record to 31-1 and has won 26 of her last 27 major matches staged on hard courts, with her lone loss coming to Serena Williams in last year's U.S. Open final, when she blinked trying to serve it out.
The pressure of playing for a place in the final provoked edginess in both women, who traded breaks to open the match. Finding the range on her forehand, Azarenka broke at love for 3-2, only follow it up with a hideous, four-error game as she dumped successive double faults in donating the break back.
Throughout the tournament, Pennetta slid her serve into the corner to set up her first strike. It was an effective play against 5’4 ½” Sara Errani, 5’6” Simona Halep, and 5’4” Roberta Vinci, but the six-footer standing across the net today has a much more expansive reach. Azarenka employed it, breaking again for 5-4 advantage; the pair combined for seven service breaks in the first nine games.
At that point, Vika probably would have swapped the serve for the right to return and close out the set. Fighting her nerves and her serve, Azarenka blew a fourth set point by dumping her fifth double fault into net. Belting a backhand cross-court, she gained a fifth set point, only to see Pennetta pound a forehand winner to save it. Unfazed, Azarenka lured the former world No. 1 doubles player forward with a drop shot, then beat her with a backhand up the line for a sixth set point. She finally closed a tense, 10-minute game with a service winner down the middle to take the taxing 52-minute first set.
The biggest problem Pennetta faced today was defending her serve. Azarenka won 25 of 32 points played on Pennetta’s second serve, converted eight of 13 break points, and basically treated the second serve as target practice for much of the match. Pennetta floated a forehand wide to drop serve to open the second set, only to see Azarenka reciprocate with forehand errors. But when Pennetta put a backhand into the net, Azarenka had her fifth straight service break and a 2-1 lead.
The lead loosened the Belarusian up a bit. She won 10 of 11 points to stretch the lead to 4-1, but Azarenka remained skittish and vulnerable on her own serve. She committed six double faults, dropped serve five times, won just 10 of 29 points on her second serve, hit several sub-80 M.P.H. second serves, and could not impose clean closure as she dropped serve for 4-2.
But that was Pennetta’s last push. Azarenka broke at 15 for 5-2, fired that swing volley winner for match point, and ended the 94-minute match with her 15th winner. Azarenka must clean up her act for the final—she leads the tournament with 31 double faults and littered 25 errors against the first-time semifinalist—but she’s still standing with a shot at her second Grand Slam title of the year. More importantly, she owns two hard-court final wins over world No. 1 Serena, her likely opponent.
IBM Stat of the Match: Them's the breaks: Pennetta was powerless on serve against Azarenka, one of the game's top returners. The Italian won just seven of 32 second-serve points, or 22 percent on the day.
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