The Poise of Veterans: Flavia Pennetta, Daniela Hantuchova Turn Back the Clock
When the women's draw was made at the US Open, the third quarter proved to be the section with the most intriguing storylines. Following the withdrawal of Maria Sharapova, Sara Errani became the No. 4 seed and headlined her own quarter of the draw for the first time. Could she and No. 6 seed Caroline Wozniacki put their poor summers behind them? Could Simona Halep, the darling of the summer, keep up a high level as a seeded player?
At the end of the first week of the women's event, however, two unseeded 30-somethings have stolen the show. Flavia Pennetta and Daniela Hantuchova have flipped the draw on its head and reminded everyone just what they can produce.
Flavia Pennetta was the pioneer for Italian women's tennis, the first from her country to be ranked inside the top 10 in 2009. Despite breaking that glass ceiling, Pennetta became somewhat of an afterthought as Francesca Schiavone became a major champion, Sara Errani became a top-five player and Roberta Vinci paired with Errani to doubles glory at the majors.
At the US Open, however, Pennetta has always seized the headlines for herself. A three-time quarterfinalist in 2008, 2009 and 2011, Pennetta came into the event ranked No. 83 in the world. However, she was ranked outside the top 100 at the entry list deadline six weeks ago and only got into the main draw when Yulia Putintseva pulled out with an injury.
Pennetta, whose return to form has been arduous following wrist surgery last season, has saved some of her best for the courts at Flushing Meadows. She routed American Nicole Gibbs in the opening round before doing the same to Errani in the second. She had never beaten Svetlana Kuznetsova, her third-round opponent, but prevailed again in two sets.
In the fourth round on Monday, Pennetta took the court against Halep and perhaps felt as though she was looking in a mirror. For so long, Pennetta made clean hitting and textbook technique an art form, and the 21-year-old Romanian has taken up her mantle.
After a flawless performance by Pennetta in the opening set, Halep showed glimpses of the form that has taken her to four titles this season as she rallied from a break down in the second set. With Pennetta tiring, the heavens opened with Halep at set point. Upon resumption, the Italian regrouped and produced some of her mercurial best to win the second-set tiebreak and advance to her fourth US Open quarterfinal.
A player can only beat who is in front of her, and in her last five majors, Daniela Hantuchova could not do that very often. A first-round loser in every major since Wimbledon 2012, Hantuchova took advantage of the carnage that resulted from Samantha Stosur's and Nadia Petrova's first-round upsets.
Even when she was a top-10 player, Hantuchova tended to be known better for matches that she lost than matches that she won. After dousing the dreams of American upstart Victoria Duval in the second round, Hantuchova found herself with her back against the wall against Israeli qualifier Julia Glushko in the third round. Down a set and two breaks, Hantuchova saved four match points en route to a win in a third-set tiebreak thriller.
Playing with house money, Hantuchova took to Arthur Ashe Stadium Monday against another American Cinderella in Alison Riske. Riske, who upset Mona Barthel and Petra Kvitova en route to the second week, appeared overwhelmed by the moment as Hantuchova sprinted out to a set and a break lead. Eleven years removed from her last US Open quarterfinal, Hantuchova survived a mid-match push from Riske after the lengthy rain delay to survive in three sets.
While perhaps a step slower than they once were, Pennetta and Hantuchova have traded that edge for a wealth of experience. In a topsy-turvy bottom half, veterans prevailed over their vastly less experienced opponents. They say that you cannot teach an old dog new tricks, but by exploiting a perfect storm of circumstances, Pennetta and Hantuchova will feature at the late stages of a major once again.