By Simon Evans
NEW YORK, Sept 4 (Reuters) - The U.S. Open has been a stomping ground for Italian female tennis players in recent years but Flavia Pennetta's journey to the last four has been one of the more unexpected successes for the Azzurri.
Italy has had a woman in the last eight for each of the past six events at Flushing Meadows and this year it was unseeded Pennetta who beat 10th seed compatriot Roberta Vinci to reach the first grand slam semi-final of her career.
It was the fourth quarter-final appearance at Flushing Meadows for Pennetta but the first that she has won and comes a year after she needed major wrist surgery.
"These are the two most beautiful weeks of my life, I feel like a player again after all the problems that I've had," said Pennetta, who also had to deal with a hamstring injury in June.
"I feel great at the moment, New York is a place that is truly incredible for me, it is so full of good memories."
After struggling to get back to full form in the first half of this year, the 31-year-old entered Wimbledon ranked 166th in the world but a run to the fourth round indicated she was on the way back.
So far at the U.S. Open she has done enough to secure a top 40 spot in the rankings given straight-set wins over American Nicole Gibbs, compatriot and fourth-seed Sara Errani, Russia's Svetlana Kuznetsova and Romanian Simona Halep.
Next up for Pennetta is either Belarussian second seed Victoria Azarenka or Slovakia's Daniela Hantuchova but for a moment on Wednesday she was able to reflect on her hard road back, remembering how she spent last year's tournament, a week after the operation on her right wrist.
"I was at Brindisi, recovering from the operation and I was with my parents and watching some of the tennis on the television," said Pennetta.
"I was pleased that Sara was having an excellent tournament but on the other hand I was very unhappy that I wasn't here.
"I have to say that I only watched to see how the Italians were doing and then switched it off, I didn't follow all the matches and results."
She did, of course, wonder about her chances of getting back in the mix at a venue where she had reached the last eight in 2008, 2009 and 2011.
"I hoped I could do it. It didn't come so easy at the start of the year for me but of course I wanted to get back and I hoped I could," she said.
"I just try to keep working and working in the same way every day. I starting to feel more my forehand, my backhand. Everything starting to feel more normal in the way it was before the injury," she said.
"And I think I've played really good tennis here, especially with Sara and with Kuznetsova. Every day has felt much better," she added.
"I'm proud of myself now. I'm 31, and physically I feel good at last. I'm in my first semi-final in a grand slam. There is nothing else to say." (Editing by Frank Pingue)