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Off-script: The unexpected has prevailed for the women at the Open

Peng Shuai celebrates after her straight-sets victory to advance to the semifinals.
By Nicholas McCarvel
Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Predicting these names at the start of the US Open would qualify you as a future-telling genius: There’s the teenager from Switzerland, playing ahead of her potential; the Chinese journeywoman who swings like Monica Seles; and an Italian bred on clay courts that has made a habit of Cinderella runs on the hard cement of the city.

The US Open 2014 has been a bizarre mix of the mind-boggling and the inspiring. Tuesday afternoon (second in Arthur Ashe Stadium) that aforementioned Swiss miss – Belinda Bencic – and China’s Peng Shuai did battle in a quarterfinal match that made Peng just the 11th unseeded player in the Open Era to make the last four in New York.

This year at the US Open, the women's quarterfinals are a collection of the unexpected, a cross section of women's tennis from young to old, highly ranked to highly unknown.

“You don't expect anything,” said No. 1 seed Serena Williams, perhaps the only player expected to be still be around at this point of the tournament. “I don't have any expectations. I just am here to focus on my match and hopefully do what I can do, and that's it.”

Williams may be the only one. Out went No. 2 seed Simona Halep (third round). Out went 2006 champion Maria Sharapova (fourth round). Out went Top 5 stalwart Agnieszka Radwanska (second round). Out, out, out…

Yet the cast that makes up the final eight is one that a Hollywood producer would be happy with. The aforementioned clay-loving Italian is Flavia Pennetta, who has transformed her game into a hard-court force. So, too, has her countrywoman Sara Errani, who meets a resurgent Caroline Wozniacki in Tuesday’s other women’s quarterfinal. Victoria Azarenka, finding her game again after nagging injuries, and a soft-spoken Ekaterina Makarova make up the cast.

“The depth of the women's game now is so high … the level is high,” said a grinning Wozniacki, who is into her first Grand Slam quarterfinal since the 2012 Australian Open. She scored a headline-grabbing triumph over Sharapova in the fourth round, a match that had all the twists and turns (and side-eyes) of a reality series played out on the Ashe stage.

“It's never easy,” Wozniacki continued. “It's always easy on paper but never easy in reality. If it was, then all of us would be sitting here as No. 1 in the world and plenty of Grand Slam titles in our pockets.”

Makarova had another quarterfinal of a major in her pocket, beating the stifling New York heat and 2014’s glamour girl Genie Bouchard to reach the last eight for the fifth time in her career, and second year in a row at the US Open.

Like Bencic and Peng, it was Pennetta who was the unseeded semifinalist here a year ago. The quarterfinals were a big-time first for the 17-year-old Bencic, but for Pennetta the older you get, the more you soak in the good of the experience as a whole.

“When you are young, you want it too badly,” the 32-year-old said Monday, six years removed from her debut in the US Open quarterfinals. “So much pressure. When you are a little bit old, you see things in different way.”

The differing perspectives of the young and old have made up this US Open in full. Another 32-year-old, Mirjana Lucic-Baroni, made the fourth round at a major for the first time in 15 years. Fifteen-year-old American CiCi Bellis, born a few weeks before that Lucic Wimbledon run, made her own headlines, upsetting Dominika Cibulkova, the Australian Open finalist, on Day 2 of the tournament.

So close to the quarterfinals came another “what’s-her-name?” in 21-year-old Aleksandra Krunic, who played the cinematically inspired role of underdog against Azarenka late Monday night, only to see the two-time US Open finalist prevail in a nail-biting finish.

Azarenka did her part to infuse a bit more normalcy in the quarterfinal lineup. But, as Serena noted, there new normal is that the script doesn’t play out how it’s supposed to anymore. Predictions for the quarterfinals, anyone?