By Larry Fine
NEW YORK (Reuters) - Italy rules at the U.S. Open tennis championships on Saturday when childhood friends and Fed Cup team mates Flavia Pennetta and Roberta Vinci play for the women's title in the last grand slam of the year.
The 43rd-ranked Vinci, playing her grand slam singles semi-final, toppled the mighty Serena Williams, while number 26 Pennetta pounded past second seed Simona Halep of Romania to set up a totally unexpected clash in the finals.
It is the first all-Italian singles final in a grand slam and ensures Italy's first U.S. Open champion and second grand slam champion, after 2010 French Open winner Francesca Schiavone.
"All-Italian, yes!" said 32-year-old Vinci, after derailing Williams' bid for a first calendar-year Grand Slam sweep in 27 years.
"And tomorrow one Italian win for sure," added Vinci, brandishing a thumbs-up.
Born about 70 kilometers (43 miles) apart in southern Italy -- Vinci in Taranto and Pennetta in Brindisi -- they have battled close to even head-to-head, with the 33-year-old Pennetta holding a 5-4 edge, including a U.S. quarter-final win in 2013.
Vinci, a five-times grand slam doubles winner, has posted a 23-20 singles record including her run at the Open.
She benefited from a walkover against Canada's 25th seed Eugenie Bouchard, who withdrew after suffering a concussion in the locker room after her third-round match.
Pennetta is a more accomplished singles player. She has won 10 career titles on the Women's Tennis Association circuit and finished the 2014 season ranked 14th.
She has compiled a 23-15 record this year and will start the final a warm favorite.
Pennetta will also be playing her first grand slam final after beating twice Wimbledon champion Petra Kvitova, the fifth seed, in the quarter-finals, and 22nd-seeded former U.S. champion Sam Stosur of Australia in the fourth round.
Neither player envisioned reaching such heights.
"I didn't have a goal so high," Pennetta said. "I have to be honest. I was always thinking I would like to play Rome, for sure, because when I was really young every year my mom and my dad bring me to see the tournament.
"My goal was just to play Rome, to be a good Italian player. Not good in the world, but in Italy."
Said Vinci: "I'm 32, almost at the end of my career, and then I make the first U.S. Open final in grand slam. I didn't expect this."
Pennetta, who played in Friday's earlier semi-final, said: "If I play against Roberta, it's going to be nice for everyone. Doesn't matter who is gonna win. It's going to be a big thing.
"Of course you want to win, but you gonna hug her if she gonna win. It's amazing. Doesn't matter."
(Editing by Andrew Both)