US Open 2011: Wozniacki shows her winning ways
Will the winning personality of Caroline Wozniacki also become the winning player this year in New York?
One by one, many former Grand Slam winners in the US Open have dropped by the wayside. The defending champion, Kim Clijsters, did not even make it to the starting line.
Is this the chance for Caroline Wozniacki, the world No1 but thus far without a Major, to finally silence her critics? Or will she remain forever second fiddle to Serena Williams?
When Clijsters pulled out of the 2011 US Open with injury, it was a real blow to the women’s tournament. Clijsters’ win in New York in 2009, having left tennis to have her daughter, was her first chance to defend the title she won back in 2005.
She managed it on the back of just seven matches in two tournaments and then, as if to reinforce the point, she won again in 2010″”an unbeaten 21 matches in New York over six years.
She even took the next Slam in the calendar in January in Australia.
What fans hoped for this time around was that the popular champion would face the challenge of another multiple winner, Serena Williams, herself on the long road back from a 12-month absence with injury.
Clijsters and Williams own three US titles each and have won similar numbers of both matches and titles in their careers.
They met in every year between 1999 and 2003 but since then they have faced each other only once: Clijsters beat Williams in the US semi-finals in 2009. No wonder a rematch was the dream scenario.
So with Clijsters unable to compete this year, the talk was about who could challenge the mighty Serena.
The question hung in the air, unanswered, as she rose to the tour’s surface during the three short months since her return to competition like bubbles in a champagne glass.
She lost just two matches out of 18, took back-to-back titles in the US Open Series at Stanford and Toronto, and the Olympus Open Series.
Apart from Williams, however, the US Open draw included seven other Grand Slam winners, though it soon became clear that the title would not go to any of this year’s Slam titlists. Along with Clijsters, they included Na Li in Paris and Petra Kvitova in Wimbledon. Both lost in the first round.
Two other Major winners did rather better but they were both champions on the clay of Paris.
Ana Ivanovic won the French title in 2008 as a teenager but seemed unable to handle the media attention that accompanied such success combined with personal star-appeal. Her best result in any Slam since has been a fourth round””in New York last year. This time she fell at the same stage, a victim of Serena’s disproportionately low seeding.
Francesca Schiavone, winner in Paris in 2010, was also a quarter-finalist here last year, but she has rarely shown the form on these fast courts that her all-court game might suggest.
The oldest woman left in the draw, she too lost in the fourth round to the fast-improving No17 seed and the youngest in the draw, Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova. The Russian’s two-and-three-quarter-hour win earned her the unenviable task of trying to halt the Serena surge in the quarter-finals.
But what of the three former US champions in the draw?
Venus Williams won here in 2000 and 2001 and reached at least the semi-finals on five other occasions, including last year. But Venus had played just 10 matches in three tournaments since that 2010 semi-final loss to Clijsters.
She therefore came into the draw unseeded and, after winning her first-round match, pulled out with news that she had been diagnosed with the auto-immune disease, Sjogrens’ Syndrome.
On the same side of the draw was Maria Sharapova, who won in New York in 2006. Her career took a downward turn because of a persistent shoulder injury but, following surgery, she was again making her mark by 2010, winning two titles and reaching the finals of three more events.
This year, her resurgence seemed complete as she shone on the early American hard courts””semis in Indian Wells and finals in Miami””won on the clay of Rome, reached the semis in the French and the final of Wimbledon.
Then, immediately ahead of the US Open, she won the Premier Cincinnati title. Yet her win there showed fluctuating consistency, especially in her serve.
Come her third-round match against Flavia Pennetta, Sharapova hit 12 double faults in a total of 60 unforced errors. The favourite to reach the final against Williams was gone.
There still remained, in the top half of the draw, a former US champion who could meet Williams in the semi-finals. Svetlana Kuznetsova came to Flushing as an 18-year-old in 2004 to take the tournament by storm with her muscular, attacking game. She won the French Open as recently as 2009 but struggled to regain the No2 ranking she enjoyed back in 2007.
She is a temperamental, emotional player who can be brilliant but can produce heavy losses. This year’s peaks and troughs capture a typical graph, with wins over higher seeds such as Sam Stosur in Sydney and Schiavone in Dubai outnumbered by losses in the first rounds of Indian Wells, Madrid, Rome and Toronto to lower ranked players.
She began her US campaign looking strong and focused in her progress to the fourth round. There she met””and seemed to have beaten””the top seed in the tournament.
Against Wozniacki, the Russian won the first set tie-break and rushed to a 4-1 lead in the second set with the aggressive forehand power of old.
Wozniacki burst onto the Grand Slam stage on the very same court when she reached the finals here in 2009. She fell to Clijsters but she beat her current opponent, Kuznetsova, along the way. On that occasion, she also lost the first set but came back to win two tie-breakers.
She showed that same grit again to produce her most resilient tennis, won the next four games, and served for the set. Kuznetsova showed just as much character to break back and level at 5-5, but the Dane had the deeper reserves of energy and better consistency, and broke again to serve out the set 7-5.
Wozniacki does not have a stand-out, match-winning shot””a Williams serve or a Stosur forehand””but she does have supreme fitness, balance, tactical intelligence and the ability to play with accuracy and consistency from both wings””for as long as it takes.
Once Kuznetsova had lost her chance to close out the match, her energy levels dropped, her error count rose, and Wozniacki attacked more aggressively. She quickly took the third set 6-1 in a match of more than three hours, yet still she bounced into her news conference, past midnight, as fresh as a daisy.
After doing a swift imitation of Rafael Nadal’s cramping incident””she afterwards apologised to his fans””she explained her thought processes at a set and 1-4 down: “I knew that I had to do something different.
“I had to step into the court because she had the momentum going: She was stepping into the court. I was standing too far behind. I was like: OK, she still needs to win eight more points to win the match and it’s not easy to close it out.”
That competitive zeal and enthusiasm have won many fans””she took a standing ovation on Arthur Ashe””but so has her positive, sunny personality.
Although she takes her tennis seriously””she has won six titles this year already””she does not take herself too seriously, and is notorious for breaking the norms in news conferences.
Ask Novak Djokovic””friend, neighbour and hitting partner in Monte Carlo””whose conference she recently gate-crashed.
But in New York, there seems to be an extra lightness about her. Whether it’s the independence she has gained from her coaching father or the fun she has found in her budding romance with the equally extrovert Rory McIlory, who knows? But could it be the x-factor in an already-impressive game?
With the in-form Andrea Petkovic up next and then Williams in the semis, she will need an x-, y- and z-factor to reach the final and a chance for her first Slam.
There are many, though, who hope the winning personality of Wozniacki also becomes the winning player in New York.