By Steve Keating
(Reuters) - Simona Halep will be the young gun in a U.S. Open semi-final lineup that features three 30-somethings after the Romanian beat Victoria Azarenka 6-3 4-6 6-4 on Wednesday as rain hit the grand slam for the first time.
Despite the gloomy weather the Italian flag was flying proudly over the U.S. Open after Flavia Pennetta toppled Czech fifth seed Petra Kvitova 4-6 6-4 6-2 to join compatriot Roberta Vinci in the last four.
Defying the odds, rankings and age, 33-year-old Pennetta and 32-year-old Vinci put their name in the record books by becoming the first two Italian women in the Open Era to reach the semi-finals of any grand slam.
With 33-year-old Serena Williams also in the last four, 23-year-old Halep will be giving up close to decade of experience to all her remaining challengers.
"I mean, of course we are a little bit old for the age of tennis right now," said Pennetta. "But we are here. We still fight."
The dream of an All-Italian U.S. Open final, however, will require some special magic particularly from Vinci, who has the daunting task of facing three-times defending U.S. Open champion and world number one Williams.
Pennetta will take on second seeded Romanian Halep.
Chasing her first grand slam singles title, Halep came out strong against Azarenka and took the opening set but as storm clouds rolled in so did trouble for the diminutive Romanian as the Belarusian sent her scurrying from corner to corner to level the quarter-final at one set apiece.
A light rain during the fourth game of the third set forced them off the court for 85 minutes but when the players returned to Arthur Ashe Stadium, a revived Halep took command.
"I was a bit tired after the second set and that break helped me. Thanks God, for raining," said Halep, who was cheered on by a noisy contingent of flag-waving Romanians. "I found the power to give everything to win this one because I really wanted to play first time the semi-finals here."
Pennetta has always been at home on the New York hardcourts having now advanced to at least the quarter-finals in six of her last seven visits to the National Tennis Center.
The same courts, however, have not been kind to Kvitova, the two-times Wimbledon champion, who never ventured past the fourth round until this year.
Kvitova, one of only two players to beat Williams this season, had been in superb form winning her final U.S. Open tune-up in New Haven and carried that momentum into Flushing Meadows, reaching the quarter-finals without dropping a set.
The Czech had looked well on her way to a first semi-final appearance when she easily took the opening set but the veteran Pennetta kept her cool on another sizzling morning in New York.
Serving at 5-4 in the second Pennetta wobbled, missing an easy winner to hand Kvitova a break chance but the Italian did not buckle and hung on to level the match and then dominated the third set as Kvitova wilted in the oppressive heat.
"Before the tournament I never think to be so far in the tournament, so it's something special," said Pennetta. "I didn't play really well in the last week and the feeling was not that good.
"I just come here and try to practice, try to find the good feeling with the ball, with the atmosphere here, and everything it seems to be working.”
(Editing by Frank Pingue)