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Pennetta Holds Nerve, Closes Out World No.1

Flavia Pennetta let a big third set lead slip but played an inspired tie-break to seal the deal.

Published October 07, 2011 12:00

Pennetta Holds Nerve, Closes Out World No.1
Flavia Pennetta

BEIJING, China - The surprises kept on coming on Quarterfinal Friday at the China Open, as one player finally got the better of the world's No.1 and another player kept her career-best run going at the $4.5-million tournament.

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That career-best run belongs to 24-year-old Romanian Monica Niculescu, who had already posted her best ever result, recording her first Top 10 win over Li Na and reaching the sixth and biggest WTA quarterfinal of her career. Now she has made the third and biggest WTA semifinal of her career following a gutsy come-from-behind 36 63 64 victory over in-form Russian Maria Kirilenko.

Having won 12 of her last 15 matches and being a former champion in Beijing, Kirilenko was favored to end the run of Niculescu, a qualifier - she even went up a set and a break, 63 32. But Niculescu never stopped fighting, winning seven straight games from there to lead 3-0 in the third and never letting go.

"I'm so happy I can't find the words to describe my feelings now," Niculescu beamed. "Today's match was so tough, I really had to focus on every point. In the end it was like a dream come true. It's just unbelievable for me to be in the semifinals after coming through the qualifying - it's my best result and I believe it's good for me for next year because I'll be stronger and more confident."

Next up for Niculescu is No.9 seed Andrea Petkovic, who beat No.13 seed Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova later, 63 76(2). Niculescu has beaten Petkovic in both of their previous meetings, although those meetings came back in 2006 on the ITF Circuit when neither was even ranked in the Top 250.

In the feature night match, Flavia Pennetta scored her first win in six career meetings with Caroline Wozniacki, edging the No.1-ranked Dane, 36 60 76(2).

After losing the first set Pennetta went on a tear, winning 10 of 11 games to take the second set at love and build a 4-1 lead in the third. Although she was being overpowered Wozniacki's fighting spirit kicked into high gear, as she cut down on her errors - and was helped by a flurry of miscues from Pennetta - to win five of the next six games and serve for the match at 6-5. From 30-0 up Wozniacki's momentum hit a roadblock and Pennetta broke for 6-all.

The two players traded points to open the tie-break but that's when the down-the-lines that had taken Pennetta to such a big lead emerged again - she hit a backhand down the line pass for 2-1, a forehand down the line winner for 3-1, another backhand down the line to force an error for 4-1 and another backhand down the line winner for 5-1. Wozniacki hit a service winner to close to 5-2 but it was too late as her opponent's game had clicked again. It was soon over.

"I had 6-5, 30-0 and should have closed the match out," Wozniacki said. "Flavia played some good points at that time, though, and I think I made a few wrong decisions. It's unlucky. I knew it was going to be tough out there beforehand."

While her winners-to-errors differential was largely even at +3 (45 to 42), Pennetta's match stats were highlighted by 30-for-33 on net points. She now has two career wins over a No.1, having beaten Jelena Jankovic in 2008.

"It's unbelievable to beat the No.1 in the world - I haven't done that so many times," Pennetta said. "She's an unbelievable player and was really fighting hard until the last point, so I'm really proud of myself for closing it out today. But it's still just one match and I have to focus again because there's more to come."

Next for Pennetta is No.11 seed Agnieszka Radwanska, who was leading Ana Ivanovic 63 32 when the Serbian former No.1 retired with a low back injury.

"I've been struggling with my back since the beginning of last week in Tokyo. I've had lots of treatment on it but it hasn't been getting much better," Ivanovic said. "I went for an MRI here yesterday and the doctors are still looking at the results. I'm talking to physios and just making sure of the next steps. It's too early to say anything. I really hope I can still play tournaments in Luxembourg and Bali.

"It was still inspirational to see the things I've been working on come together here in Beijing. I played some great tennis this week, probably the best tennis I've played in years. I think next year will be a big year for me."

Radwanska leads Pennetta in their head-to-head series, 2-1.

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