New York: Less than three months after hitting a low when she had to pull out of Wimbledon injured, a determined Victoria Azarenka put herself in prime position to bookend her stellar season with another grand slam title.
The Australian Open champion jumped for joy after securing a 6-4 6-2 win over Italy`s Flavia Pennetta in a U.S. Open semi-final on Friday that put her back into the final of the year`s last grand slam for the second straight year.
It was far from a fluid display from Azarenka, who enjoyed victories at Doha and Cincinnati this year while losing in two other finals, but the second seed was delighted to get past a tricky opponent.
"I`m happy I`m in the final. There are always things that can be better. I felt like the first set was a little bit tricky - the momentum wasn`t there," said Azarenka, who will face top-seeded Serena Williams in Sunday`s final.
"But I felt like I had a great groundstrokes, everything. You know, just one shot wasn`t working and threw my rhythm a little bit off-balance.
"Just being able to pick up and raise the level in the important moments, that`s what, you know, it`s all about, to be able to do that.
It was a much different tune from Azarenka, who in June had said she "couldn`t be any more disappointed" after pulling out of Wimbledon with a bruised knee before her second round match.
Azarenka and Pennetta both struggled to hold serve on centre court with 13 breaks in the 18 games but the Belarussian`s power was too much for the enterprising Italian, who returned from a serious wrist injury to reach her first grand slam semi-final.
"I had my chances. I didn`t take them in the first set, but I was playing pretty good. She played really well, really consistently," said Pennetta.
"We didn`t serve really well, either of us. But in the end she`s powerful player. She had more power than me but it was a good fight."
There were five service breaks in a row before Azarenka held to win the first set after an intense battle where the unseeded, 31-year-old Pennetta saved five set points.
The second set followed a similar pattern, with three broken serves before Azarenka turned up the power, holding to go up 3-1 in the set and then breaking Pennetta, ranked 83rd in the world, with a powerful backhand winner.
Azarenka, 24, also struggled to make her serve count though, offering a glimmer of hope to the 31-year-old Italian when she went wide with a return on break point.
But once again Pennetta was unable to hold, twice finding the net to hand Azarenka the chance to serve for the game and despite a brave effort from the Italian, who produced a sizzling return down the line in the final game, Azarenka sealed the win with a well-placed forehand.
It was a valiant effort from Pennetta, a player who few could have imagined marching to her first grand slam semi-final.
"It was an incredible tournament from her, (great) to see her doing so well," said Azarenka. "She played really well. She was getting to the balls that sometimes I didn`t expect to come back, and she really surprised me in those kind of ways.
"She was really solid. I just felt that I was able to play better and execute better on the important moments and really take my chances."