Wednesday, September 9, 2015

Halep hangs with the elders

Simona Halep, a mere 23 years old, was the last woman to fight her way into the U.S. Open semifinals today. The other three are top seed Serena Williams, and Italians Roberta Vinci and Flavia Pennetta, who are 33, 32 and 33, respectively. The win didn't come easily for Halep, who--arguably--had some help from Mother Nature.

The Romanian star's opponent was the always-formidable Victoria Azarenka, who has attacked this U.S. Open in a way that has made me think of Australian Open Vika. Halep played close to flawless tennis and won the first set 6-3, but then wavered a bit as she faced the elevated game of Azarenka. By the middle of the second set, both Halep and Azarenka--who make no attempt to hide any of their on-court emotions--were in and out of various frenzies. I was kind of hoping the deejay would cue up "Poker Face."

Halep is an obvious perfectionist who becomes impatient with herself over the slightest perceived flaw. Vika is--well, Vika. These two match each other in intensity, and they matched each other in groundstrokes in today's match. Azarenka took the second set 6-4, and went up a break in the third. It looked, for a moment, like the former U.S. Open runner-up was going to take control of the set, but Halep broke back. Serving at 2-1 with game point, Halep got what may have been just the break she needed: It began to rain.

When the players came back, the Simona Show commenced. And Halep's Romanian fans, who could barely be heard in the previous set (and were not heard at all, and apparently not in attendance, in her previous matches), penetrated the stadium with their trademark cheer, "Si-Mo-Na! Si-Mo-Na! Halep got her serve back on track and cleaned up the errors. She would win the set 6-4, and would wind up with an impressive 40 winners and 19 unforced errors.

After the match, Azarenka remarked that she was a bit surprised by how hard her opponent was hittng the ball. Flavia Pennetta, who will be Halep's next opponent, maintained that Halep hits the ball harder than Azarenka. Of course, the Romanian's greatest asset is her movement, both speed and footwork, but she has made an obvious effort to put more power into her groundstrokes.

Pennetta reached the semifinals by defeating 5th seed Petra Kvitova. Kvitova has looked really good throughout the tournament, but today was an especially hot and very humid day, and the sun was so bright on one end of the court, it was causing all kinds of problems, and not just with serving. Kvitova won the first set, Pennetta won the second, and by the middle of the third, it appeared that the Barking Czech was doing the best she could to just stay on the court.

Kvitova suffers with asthma, which is triggered by humidity (she has also suffered with chronic respiratory infections), and she is currently recovering from mononucleosis. Playing at the U.S. Open has never been her strong suit, largely because of the humidity issue. If you are feeling ill and exhausted and vulnerable, one of the last things you need to see when you look up is a Fighting Italian, and Pennetta is the original Fighting Italian.

Pennetta is also the Queen of Fed Cup, but Kvitova has become the second reigning Queen of Fed Cup. I couldn't help but wonder, while I was watching the match, what the dynamics would have been if this were Fed Cup competition and not the U.S. Open. No problem for Pennetta, though. She soldiered through the sun, the heat, the sweat, and the occasion, to reach her second U.S. Open semifinal, with a 4-6, 6-4, 6-2 victory.

In yesterday's quarterfinal, the heat also marked the end of Kiki Mladenovic's run. Mladenovic was cramping, and by the third set, she was in real trouble. Vinci defeated her 6-3, 5-7, 6-4. Vinci reached the quarterfinal when she got a walkover from Genie Bouchard in the round of 16. This is the first time since 2010 that the Italian has been unseeded at a major, and this is the first time she has ever reached a semifinal at a major. For her efforts, she will next face off against Serena Williams.

It's an interesting semifinal draw, even if you take away the age factor. There are two Italians remaining, which is probably not what anyone expected (though you would have been wise to consider that one Italian might still be around). The first and second seeds are there, but their opponents are the unseeded Vinci and the 11th-seeded Pennetta. Halep is playing extremely well but is still vulnerable to making patches of errors, which appear to be generated--to a great extent--by her perfectionistic pique toward herself.  Pennetta is over that sort of thing in her own career, is tough as nails, and represents real danger if the Romanian star struggles.

As for Vinci, her U.S. Open run might be the icing on the cake, and the cake is many-layered and beautiful. The former doubles world number 1 has always had a lovely game, and while it's doubtful that anything she does can pose a threat to our world number 1, it's nevertheless a fine achievement that Vinci has reached the semifinals. (It should be noted that Pennetta is also a former doubles world number 1.)

As for Serena--she beat Venus and has two more to go. Halep is, of course, favored to be her opponent in the final (assuming Serena winds up there, of course), and after today's masterful performance against Azarenka, she is probably highly favored. But be it Halep or Pennetta--when Serena looks across the net, she will see a dedicated fighter.


Todd.Spiker said...

So glad they changed the schedule of the finals so that they go back to Saturday/Sunday, rather than Sunday/Monday, by the way.

Of course, after saying that, I'm sure it'll rain and they'll be on Sunday/Monday again. Final year, though... with the roof in '16 that'll never have to happen again.

The one sad thing about the run of the current Italian generation is that, as they begin to reach their natural end soon, there really doesn't seem to any real good young player from the next generation to follow in their footsteps, let alone four who'll do anything like reach slam SF or finals. Giorgi (and to a lesser extent Knapp, though she's the same age as Errani) is going to have to carry a large load solely on her shoulders in a few years. Although, maybe Errani will hold on as long as Pennetta, Vinci & Schiavone, though I wonder about her ability to continue to get the same sort of results into her thirties like the other three. :(

Diane said...

I expect Errani to go for a long time, yes. And if nothing else, I expect her to (again) be an important figure in doubles, and in Fed Cup. As for Giorgi, if she can ever get her head straight, she can perform like what I think she is--the spiritual daughter of Flavia Pennetta. In every other aspect, she's the real Fighting Italian deal.

It might be good, at this point, to recall that Schiavone advanced to final after final, and lost them all. When she finally adjusted her head, she made tennis history.