NEW YORK — We called her the Woz, a word play on the Wiz, and on a court Caroline Wozniacki certainly looked like a wiz, a winner, even if she didn’t own a Grand Slam. There wasn’t a shot she couldn’t chase down; there wasn’t a ball she couldn’t return.
She was No. 1 in the women’s rankings for 67 weeks, and in 2009 she made it to the final of the U.S. Open. A loss to Kim Clijsters seemed only a blip, a hiccup as the tennis people say. The Woz was 19, and had to get better.
Instead she got worse.
Maybe it was because the way she played, defensively—defense wins in football, but not necessarily in a racquet sport—or maybe it was because of her now-severed relationship with Rory McIlroy, to whom she became engaged before as the world knows he broke it off.
Her ranking kept falling, all the way to 18th this past March. So did, in a way, her reputation as a competitor. She never quit trying or working. She just quit winning.
That is until this summer, until she stepped up from the mystery and the misery.
Wozniacki may not easily or quickly regain the top spot, not with her friend Serena Williams implanted there; however, on Sunday she regained a great deal of esteem.
In a match that given the time, place and result has to be Wozniacki’s most impressive of the year, she beat Maria Sharapova, 6-4, 2-6, 6-2, to move into a Grand Slam quarterfinal for the first time in the last 11 Slam appearances.
And given the destruction of the women’s draw, the second, third, fourth, fifth—that was Sharapova—and sixth seeds all having been eliminated, it’s quite possible the Woz will make the final on Sunday— against Williams.
Yes, we’re getting ahead of ourselves, but why not? Tennis needs some anticipation. Right now, all it has, other than Serena, who’s in the other half of the draw, is a great deal of unpredictability.
It's like Wozniacki slipping before doing a U-turn. She had raised herself to No. 10 before this Open and will climb even more when the new rankings are released.
“This hard-court season has been amazing for me,” said Wozniacki. She next plays No. 13 Sara Errani, who, Sunday, ended the comeback tale of 32-year-old Mirjana Lucic-Baroni, the one-time teenage protege, with a 6-3, 2-6, 6-0 win.
“I actually started already feeling good on court since Eastbourne,” said Wozniacki, referring to one of the mid-June grass-court preludes to Wimbledon. “I have just been building on my game since then. You know today I just kept thinking to myself, just stay in there. Try and take the initiative. It was really hard.”
What was hard was for Sharapova, one of the sport’s personalities, a five-time Slam winner, including this year’s French Open, was to keep up with Wozniacki. Suddenly the Woz was aggressive. Suddenly Sharapova was making errors.
“She made me hit a lot of balls,” said Sharapova. “That’s always been her strength. But she did it extremely well today. She’s a great retriever.
“I think I just stopped doing what helped me get advantage of the points, in the second set. I hit a good shot, and I allowed her to get back in the point instead of looking to come in...Caroline is more consistent. Sometimes players look to improve their weaknesses. I think her strength has improved incredibly well.”
So has her distance running. Apropos of nothing but perhaps since her sport demands the ability to race after balls for hours—it was 90 degrees Sunday, and players were allowed 10-minute heat breaks—Wozniacki is training for the New York City Marathon in November.
“I’m serving well,” said Wozniacki after the win. “I’m running well.” In this instance she meant around a court, as opposed to a 26.2-mile course. She’s taking on that one for a charity. Wozniacki took on Sharapova to prove she again was a contender.
“Beating her here at the U.S. Open,” Wozniacki said of Sharapova, “it’s a tough task. I’m happy to be through and have another chance to play in the next round.
“I’ve had a great summer. I told Serena I’m pretty tired of her. Twice (Montreal and Cincinnati this summer) she beat me in three sets. I said, ‘Can you just get out of my way?’ We laugh about it. Maria, again, is a good player. This one was a great win for me. I think mentally as well to get that in my pocket is kind of nice.”
It also has to be reassuring. In tennis, as golf, doubters are prevalent. Even when she was No. 1, the critics said her game wasn’t complete enough to get a Slam. She couldn’t dictate play. Yet her belief was not shaken.
“I think my greatest strength is I can go from defense to offense and offense to defense,” insisted Wozniacki. “I think I have done a good job these last few months finding the balance between those two.
“I think I have served really well and returned well. And I never give up. You know even when it looks impossible for me to get to a ball, I’m still going to try.”
A few months ago it looked impossible that Caroline Wozniacki would go this far in the U.S. Open. It doesn’t any more.
Art Spander, an award-winning columnist, has covered more than 50 Grand Slams in his career. Unless otherwise noted, all quotes were obtained firsthand.