It's been a long and thrilling US Open so far, incredibly rich of quality and drama moments and now when it's all about the last four men and women, it's all about sizing the right chance to raise the trophy in the final.
One couldn't ask for a better semifinal line-up, in both draws there have been surprises and not all the favourites reached this far, but the ones who took their place not only deserved to get so far, but added great quality and a taste of fairytale to the story of this USOpen. Because if finding Serena Williams, Azarenka, Li Na (on the ladies' draw) and Djokovic and Nadal (in the men's) doesn't really surprise the fans, Flavia Pennetta, Stanislas Wawrinka and Richard Gasquet are all surprising names to be found at this stage.
(1) Serena Willliams vs (5) Li NaWorld number one and defending champion, Serena Williams takes on Chinise world number 5 in probably the first real test of Serena's conditions here in New York. The two know each other very well having played 9 times already, with Serena losing one of those matches, yet Li Na is well known for her powerful game and if consistency seems to be her major problem, no-one wants to face her with the rounds passing as she seems always to find her best game with the days passing in a tournament.
Surely Li Na is not the same kind of player, with no detraction to the amazing result and the qualities of the Spaniard, but the Chinese can deal a lot better with powerful shots and Serena surely knows that, as much as she knows the fighting attitude that characterizes her, so everything is set for a great quality match here. My prediction is Serena to win 7-5 6-3.
(2) Viktoria Azarenka vs Flavia PennettaWhen world number 2 and twice-in-a-row Australian Open champion takes upon world number 83, one hardly believe that this might be a competitive match, but Flavia Pennetta isn't a normal world 83, former top 10 -first Italian ever to achieve such a result- she's achieved wins over most of the greatest players of this era, leading the head to head with some of them. Her story here is probably the biggest fairytale of the past few years: two years ago, at her 3rd QF in this slam, she went so close to achieve her first ever slam SF against a still unknown Angelique Kerber, but the pressure of the moment made her crumble and lose from a break up in the third set. Because of a wrist injury and the surgery needed she skipped last year's US Open, but her comeback this year looked to be a prelude to her retirement, as much as she considered that before Wimbledon, where she played well a couple of matches and exploited the retirement of the highest seed of her section: Vika Azarenka.
It's like the plot of a very intriguing thriller, because the "free pass" of Wimbledon is now her opponent in a match that none would have bet on when the draw came out.
Yet Flavia made a great run to reach this maiden semifinal, she took down the 4th seed and last year's Semifinalist Sara Errani, former champion Svetlana Kuznetsova (overturning a 5-0 in the head-to-head), summer-sensation Simona Halep and finally her close friend and one-step-away-from-top-10 Roberta Vinci, all that without dropping a set, showing match after match her best tennis and probably even a little more. "I'm proud of me now. I'm 31, and physically I feel good finally. I'm in the first semifinal in Grand Slam." she said, "I really don't feel this pressure. In Italy we already have one champion on Grand Slam; Sara make one final, two semifinals. So I really don't feel this pressure right now."
This is probably the potentially highest quality semifinal, because Azarenka knows Flavia, the two matches they have played before have gone one to each of them and Viktoria hasn't play at her absolute best so far, being challenged by Cornet and Ivanovic en route, yet the Belorussian is probably the greatest fighter out there and when the game goes tough, so she does and in her quarter final levelled her game to the situation to take down Daniela Hantuchova in straight sets.
She knows though that if Flavia can stay calm and not feel the moment, she might need her best tennis to get through: "You know, Flavia is such an amazing, first of all, person. I think she's just a great person. To see her go through the injuries and coming up with, you know, best results she has right now, it's really amazing. She's very good player, all around player. She can do anything. She has a great touch; great variety; she can create power; create spin. I'm really looking forward to that match. It's a big challenge."
I still give Viktoria the edge, because of her bigger experience at this point of slams, but I expect it to be a close match: 7-5 3-6 6-2 for the Belorussian.
(1) Novak Djokovic vs (9) Stanislas WawrinkaAnother fairytale taste is recognizable in this semifinal, where there won't the defending champion to challenge the world number one, nor the most famous and probably talented Swiss player. This time it's another one-handed Swiss to go out there for a place in the Semifinal: Stan Wawrinka. His run here is somehow unexpected and deserved at the same time, because after many years of a very good quality career, Wawrinka found a new confidence and a renewed forehand that simply
catapulted him on a level never seen from him before. His run to this semifinal has been impressive, because differently from what happened many times in his career, he could play great tennis with continuity, keeping a cool head even when the things were about to start slipping from his hands -like in his match against an inspired Baghdatis, when he needed 4 match points to close-.
His quarterfinal match simply gives him a prime quality business card to hand to Djokovic at the very beginning: routining in straight sets Andy Murray is a sign that he is by no casualty there and won't surrender easily.
(2) Rafael Nadal vs (8) Richard GasquetNot as surprising as the other two unexpected semifinalists of this US Open, but it's hard to believe anyone would have bet on French Richard Gasquet to reach his second ever slam semifinal this year on the hard courts of Flushing Meadows, yet he's won his ticket for this by edging the 4th seed, David Ferrer in a match that seemed to be a sure win after two sets of amazing quality from Gasquet and that suddenly took the shape of a disastrous turn-around, when Ferrer levelled the score to two sets all. Nevertheless, Gasquet could miraculously find the game that made him sail through the first two sets and close after many hours of tough battles for every point 6-3 in that 5th set.
On the other side of the net this time there will be another Spaniard waiting, Rafael Nadal. The world number 2, who came back from an injury that forced him to skip most of the last season and the beginning of this one, is still undefeated on Hard Court and he seems by no mean close to be, he's serving the best of his career and most of the time he doesn't even need to defend as good as in the past, because his offensive game seem hardly to flop. After schooling the "killer" of his rival Federer, Robredo, he looks eager to waste no time nor energy to reach the final, where whoever his rival will be, he is going to be the favourite for the title.
I don't see Gasquet challenging Nadal in this match, not even if Richard can come up with his best tennis, yet he has the great chance to go out with no pressure as probably no-one is putting any hope for his win and that might let him play even better than he did in his semi...all in all, a straight 3 sets win is the most likely result for Rafa some 7-6 6-2 6-3.