When an athlete drinks in one of the great moments of her career, it’s natural to want the perfect setting for such an occasion. However, at the very moment Caroline Wozniacki defeated Maria Sharapova on Sunday at the U.S. Open, dark storm clouds loomed not too far away. Those very clouds soon poured down rain, creating a weather delay of just over two hours and leading tournament organizers to truncate the day session, creating a ticketing controversy in the process on day seven of the event.
Stormy weather, oppressive humidity, and the use of the “heat rule” — creating a 10-minute break for Wozniacki and Sharapova after the second set due to the high-heat threshold in New York — all made their presence felt on Sunday. The weather was so turbulent that the fans at Arthur Ashe Stadium who watched Wozniacki’s win were soon disappointed by their inability to see Roger Federer for a full match; they witnessed only seven games instead, and some fans from Texas took the United States Tennis Association’s decision very hard:
— Andrew Burton (@burtonad) August 31, 2014
This was an odd day at the U.S. Open, and whenever weather strikes for more than a few hours, this tournament typically makes bizarre scheduling decisions. For many, the day was overshadowed by the weather and the USTA’s response to it. This was, in many ways, not the picture-postcard environment in which ticketholders and fans are easily able to recall a day’s sweetest moment.
Yet, paradoxically, it might be appropriate that when Wozniacki won the last point against her dogged opponent, all this turbulence loomed in the near background. A player sometimes referred to as “Sunshine” had quite genuinely stepped forward and left the darkness in her life behind.
ACKNOWLEDGING THE McILROY ANGLE… AND THEN MOVING BEYOND IT
You might cringe when you read this, but really, how can the topic be avoided? In the months since Rory McIlroy, Wozniacki’s fiance, broke up with the Danish tennis star in the spring, the young man from Northern Ireland has won two of golf’s major championships. It’s questionable to say that McIlroy has tasted championship satisfaction because of his decision, but it’s fairly safe to say that McIlroy attained a competitive groove in the months following his decision. Instead of allowing the moment (albeit a moment he unnecessarily created) to hijack his game, McIlroy has carved out the head space a top-tier competitor needs in order to perform at an elite level.
As the hardcourt summer moved from Canada and Cincinnati to New York, plenty of people in the tennis community were wondering if the same dynamics could continue to emerge in Wozniacki’s career. “Caro,” as she is often referred to, played quite well in Montreal and Cincinnati, reaching the quarterfinals and semifinals, respectively, before running into a player you might have heard of: Serena Williams. Wozniacki won sets off Serena, but neither match. She made the world No. 1 fight for a pair of victories, hitting her forehand with more aggression than in the past. Gone was the more passive version of Wozniacki, the one that would resort to the moonball and other shots that could be likened to a college basketball team stalling in the pre-shot clock era (before the 1985-’86 season).
The challenge, of course, was for Wozniacki to carry those non-major tournaments to the U.S. Open, something that a lot of top pros fail to do over the course of their careers. This is where the McIlroy drama blessedly fades into the background and gives way to a true tennis tension point.
The history of tennis is littered with examples of players who could and did get hot at second-tier tournaments but could never close the sale at majors. Elena Dementieva never climbed the major-tournament mountain; neither did Dinara Safina, although injuries played a central role in shutting down her career before it had a chance to become all it could be. Agnieszka Radwanska, though only 25, seems likely to go a few more years without titles and will probably not arrive at a moment of great opportunity at the majors for another year, maybe two.
Other immensely talented players have managed to snag one or two majors but have left so many trophies unclaimed due to the battle waged with their own minds: Li Na, Svetlana Kuznetsova, and Ana Ivanovic all fit this profile. The pressure of the majors has weighed them down instead of liberating them and molding them into tougher competitors the way these moments do for Maria Sharapova at Roland Garros and Serena Williams everywhere (until this year, of course). There’s nothing wrong with mentioning — and even exploring — Caroline Wozniacki’s post-Rory world. The bigger story, though — also the better and more gripping drama — is simply Wozniacki’s push to reclaim a place as a genuine major-tournament contender after a multi-year drought on tour.
EMERGING FROM A VALLEY: WOZNIACKI’S TENNIS RENAISSANCE
It’s more than a little notable that Wozniacki’s close friend on tour, Serena Williams, has tasted the bitter herbs of what’s known as a tennis valley, albeit on a level different from what Wozniacki has recently endured. From the 2003 U.S. Open through Wimbledon of 2008 — a span of 20 majors — Serena won only two. Yes, that’s Kuznetsova’s major trophy haul in full. It’s Li Na’s major title count as well. It’s double what Ivanovic has done in her career at the majors. Lots of players would kill for two wins in a span of 20 major tournaments. For Serena, though, given that she was not yet in her 30s, that rated as a drought.
The complications of life, health, and the human brain are often major obstacles for athletes. There’s no guarantee that a sustained downturn, once entered into, can be genuinely reversed. Yes, Serena’s “downturn” wasn’t an ordinary downturn for the rest of the WTA Tour. Nevertheless, had Serena not rescued herself from that general career trajectory, she’d be sitting here today with, oh, around 12 majors instead of the 17 she has claimed. Her career would still be lauded as great, but she wouldn’t be in the GOAT discussion among female singles players. Serena found a way to escape from a string of consecutive years without consistent fulfillment and success on tour. Not many athletes have the stones to pull that off. Radwanska got hot for that one week in Montreal, but didn’t have much to offer in New York, when the pressure of a major rested more firmly on her shoulders. Ivanovic, who has won a fat stack of tour matches this year, has plainly withered in the glare of the spotlight at the year’s biggest tournaments.
Would Wozniacki manage to be different? Would she stand out from the crowd? She’s had to walk the same lonesome valley many of her competitors have also visited. It’s a well-documented story, but let’s at least lend some detail to it, just to refresh your memory:
Wozniacki has never won a major — that and her former penchant for moonballing both made her world No. 1 ranking a source of much discontent in (and derision from) the tennis community in 2009 and 2010. However, there’s no dispute that Wozniacki was a very consistent competitor, especially on hardcourts, during those years and in 2011 as well. In 2010 and 2011, Wozniacki reached the finals of eight tournaments and won six of them, all while racking up at least 40 match wins on hardcourts. She reached the semifinals or better at the U.S. Open during a three-year stretch from 2009 through 2011, losing to Kim Clijsters (a player who overcame a tennis valley of her own, it should be noted…) in the 2009 final, her only appearance in a major final to date. Wozniacki paralyed those results into rankings points and established herself as a force in women’s tennis in her very early 20s. (She’s only 24 now, if that comes as a bit of surprise to you.)
Yet, after 2011, with Serena in her ascendancy and Victoria Azarenka emerging as a much more consistent hardcourt player, Wozniacki quickly became overwhelmed in a tennis sense. She was generally crowded out of the women’s game as bigger hitters prevented her from finding a safe space on the court. Her belief diminished, and in 2013, she won only one tournament, a lower-tier event.
At the majors, she largely disintegrated. No longer the top seed she once was due to the pronounced drop in her ranking, Wozniacki encountered much tougher draws. That reality, combined with the prolonged search for answers in her game, created this period of darkness for Sunshine. Yes, Canada and Cincinnati had offered cause for hope, but would Wozniacki be able to translate those tournaments into a big run at the last major tournament of the year, offering a potential springboard to the 2014 WTA Tour Championships (the season-ending event for the top eight players, who qualify based on race points during the calendar year) and the 2015 season?
This match on Sunday against Sharapova was in many ways the moment when Wozniacki had to offer a firm and decisive answer to that question.
With Simona Halep (No. 2), the aforementioned Radwanska (No. 4), Angelique Kerber (No. 6), and — Sunday night — Jelena Jankovic (No. 9) all having been bounced from the tournament in the bottom half of the draw, the Wozniacki-Sharapova match took on added significance. The winner clearly stood to become the favorite to make next Sunday’s women’s final, picking up a huge number of rankings and race points while having the chance to win a major title. Moreover, this blockbuster match more than lived up to the hype, with Wozniacki asserting herself in the first set but Sharapova — as she so often does — finding the range on her groundstrokes in the second set, hitting harder and better in a position of peril. As the two players took their 10-minute heat break following the second set, they had a chance to mentally regroup before one of the more consequential individual sets of the entire WTA season.
Would another third set in a major belong to Sharapova, this time away from her clay-court comfort zone at Roland Garros? Or, would Wozniacki, imbued with fresh belief in her game and given the lucky break of an interruption of Sharapova’s momentum, make use of an advantageous situation?
What turned the tide in the third set was Wozniacki’s ability to change the trajectory of her shots on each ball she hit.
In set two, Sharapova dictated the vast majority of points. More particularly, though, she was able to create a lot of rallies with monochromatic hitting. It is so often the case in modern tennis, a little more in the women’s game than the men (though not to a significant extent), that a typical baseline rally involves the same basic shots: crosscourt two-handed backhands and crosscourt forehands. Balls are struck from a position near the baseline, and they land just inside the opponent’s baseline. Baseline hitting and baseline hugging, with flattened-out shots that zoom back and forth in a ping-pong-like fashion, create a one-way style of play. Sharapova is one of several players that loves this style of tennis. Being able to hit the same ball again and again, ideally with more pace rather than less, grooves her hitting zone and improves her form. Naturally, the ability to hit the same kind of shot on a repeated basis is enhanced when a player receives that same kind of shot over and over again.
When Sharapova would hit a strong, flat groundstroke in set two, Wozniacki normally retrieved the ball and sent it back without much of a change in spin, speed or trajectory. Sharapova’s timing got better as a result, and she was able to win a number of rallies which exceeded 15 strokes. On clay, this is how Sharapova wins. On hardcourts, Sharapova is a little more inclined to take the initiative in a point and end it earlier. However, in set two, Sharapova was seeing the same kind of ball over and over again, so much that the act of hitting several extra groundstrokes per point was not all that difficult for her. In set three, Wozniacki had to begin to give Sharapova different looks in order to disrupt the French Open champion’s rhythm.
Beginning in the 1-1 game of the third set and continuing in the 2-1 game when she broke Sharapova at love to change the complexion of the match, Wozniacki inserted some chipped forehands that forced Sharapova to bend low to retrieve a shot. Sharapova would either hit a short ball Wozniacki could then pounce on with an aggressive forehand, or the Russian would hit an unforced error one or two strokes later. Wozniacki’s best point of the day was a point Sharapova largely dictated (the running Energizer Bunny point to break Sharapova at 2-1 and love-40 on Sharapova’s serve in the third set), but while that break point sent the Ashe Stadium crowd into a frenzy and provided the most vivid individual moment of the match, the more important part of the story in the third set was how Wozniacki got to that love-40 position at 2-1 in the first place. She threw Sharapova off balance, and as the final set of this 6-4, 2-6, 6-2 triumph for Wozniacki played out, it had become clear that Sharapova’s backhand had fallen apart. It leaked errors in the final three games, enabling Wozniacki to cruise to the finish line after multiple hours of intense combat in a razor-close scoreboard situation.
And so, the deed is done: Caroline Wozniacki has won a main-event match at a major tournament once again, taking down a lauded and credentialed foe to give herself the inside track to the U.S. Open final. How big — and rare — was this win for Wozniacki in the context of her post-2011 career? Wozniacki defeated No. 18 seed Andrea Petkovic in the third round, but heading into the tournament, she lacked high-value scalps in the biggest tournaments over the past few years. This fact from Victoria Chiesa, which referenced Wozniacki’s status entering this event, not the Sharapova match itself, still serves to put this moment in proper perspective:
Wozniacki hadn't beaten a seeded player at a major since the 2012 Australian Open, where she was top seed. Let that sink in for a second.
— Victoria Chiesa (@vrcsports) August 31, 2014
It’s been a long time since Wozniacki has beaten a player of Maria Sharapova’s caliber on the big stage.
Yes, this victory needs to be backed up with two more wins in order for it to acquire its full measure of significance, but after outlasting one of tennis’s best fighters in three contentious sets, Caroline Wozniacki should now expect to be one of the two women left standing at the end of the 2014 U.S. Open. A career that had once seemed — no, not dead, but in a position of profound uncertainty — now seems to be ready to take off once again, thanks not only to Wozniacki’s staples of defense and fitness, but to a game with more subtleties and fewer holes. What had been moonballs a number of years ago are now occasional chipped forehands. What is still a retrieval-based game is now spiced with slightly bigger groundstrokes and a willingness to end points at net. All of this is reinforced by a better, more positive mindset and the knowledge that Caroline Wozniacki has walked through the lonely, dusty desert of disappointment.
Those storm clouds which greeted Wozniacki’s victory? Those are the clouds Wozniacki is emerging from… not walking into. The rain they unleashed roughly an hour after the end of this match offer a satisfying image for the resurgent Danish star: Her years of walking in that desert might now be over. Verdant pastures of tennis prosperity appear to be part of Wozniacki’s career in the present tense… and in the future as well.