While the cat’s away, the rest of the women’s tour will play. And the biggest reward has come to the beaming Caroline Wozniacki.
With 21 tournaments under her belt in 2010, six of them reaping titles, it was only a matter of time before she overtook the long-absent Serena Williams to take the WTA No. 1 ranking. She duly did so earlier this month and, in the process, she became the first player from Denmark ever to hold the top ranking.
It’s been an extraordinary run for the Dane since Wimbledon: 32 match wins for the loss of just two. Sadly for her, one of those losses was in the semi-finals of the U.S. Open where she had, until meeting a determined Vera Zvonareva, made serene progress without dropping a set.
In a rain-delayed final in the Beijing Premier event earlier this month, though, she wreaked revenge on the Russian to take a tour-leading sixth trophy and her 59th match win of the year. It was her second Premier trophy in as many weeks coming, as it did, hot on the heels of her win in Tokyo.
Wozniacki is fast becoming one of the stars of the tennis scene. Not only does she have a sunshine personality, prettiness in spades, and a youthful style perfectly captured by her Stella McCartney kit, she has a flexible, all-court power game that has got her to the very top at just 20 years of age.
Much has been made, however, of the fact that she has yet to beat the four major champions in the women’s game: Serena Williams and sister Venus, and the two Belgians Justine Henin and Kim Clijsters.
But in practice, Wozniacki has had the opportunity to play only one of them since hitting her stride in 2010, and that was in a long, tight three-setter against Henin in Miami back in the spring. And it’s worth remembering that the only match she has played against Clijsters was after reaching the final of the U.S. Open last year.
With both the Williams and Henin missing from the tour-topping tournament in a hot and humid Doha this week, Wozniacki’s only opportunity to face one of the four—Clijsters—will be in the knock-out phase of the WTA Championships.
The Dane has already fulfilled her part of the bargain by qualifying for the semi-final stages. She has also, in the process, assured herself of the year-end No.1 ranking.
In her first match against Elena Dementieva, it looked for all the world as though Wozniacki would be unstoppable as she defeated the graceful Russian in her tenth year-end final, 6-1, 6-1. But in her final match, played out against the sizzling backdrop of purple, lime and acid yellow of the Doha arena, Wozniacki encountered an altogether more challenging opponent. And carrying a defeat by Sam Stosur in her second match—and a convincing one at that—Wozniacki needed to win this one.
Francesca Schiavone, enjoying an Indian summer in her career, is a wiry powerhouse able to play with slice as easily as topspin, and volleys as happily as ground strokes. Her drop shot and her single-handed backhand, too, are a delight.
The charismatic Italian, a surprising and popular winner at Roland Garros, broke into the top 10 this year for the first time in her 12-year career, and stands at an all-time high of No. 6.
Her first set against Wozniacki showed just why she is such a handful, and she zipped her way to a 6-3 first set that was signed off by her signature backhand that fires like a bullet down the line.
Wozniacki, though, is a fearless and focused young woman, and she produced two sets of percentage tennis that showcased her solid all-court tactics and her ability to outrun even the most resilient of opponents.
Between them, the two women turned up the heat for the enthusiastic packed crowd, but Schiavone was forced into making error after error as Wozniacki hit the ball to the very margins of the court. The Italian won just two more games and Wozniacki booked her place in the semis, with a mature and powerful performance.
There, she may have the chance of a rematch against Clijsters, who had to battle hard against Victoria Azarenka as the clock ticked past midnight. Clijsters dropped the second set, littering her game with double faults and over-long forehands, just as she had against Jelena Jankovic in her opening match.
Clijsters is newly back from foot surgery and she has not, as a result, played since her U.S. Open victory. So the rust is still showing in her game, but she will improve with each match. Doha, though, could prove to be Wozniacki’s moment to prove her worth and finally beat one of those champions.
There are few others in the tournament who seem likely to keep pace with her except, perhaps, the woman who has been her bête noir all year, Zvonareva.
The day after Wozniacki secured the No. 1 ranking, the Russian ensured the No. 3 position, and the two currently stand at the top of the rankings.
They are, in fact, threatening to develop a rivalry on a par with the American sisters and the Belgian duo. They stand at three all in their head-to-head, and stand two apiece in meetings this year—two in semi-finals and two in finals.
And just as Wozniacki has booked her place in the semi-finals, so has Zvonareva, but the Russian has done it without dropping a set. Until the final round robins are played, they will not know whether they meet in the semis or, if they both win, in the finals. It seems appropriate that it should be the latter.
Win or lose, though, surely it cannot be long before Wozniacki captures one of the big events in the calendar to put the seal on her No. 1 status: if not in the Tour Championships this week, then in a first Grand Slam.
Certainly all the signs are that the Danish princess is here to stay. She has already achieved much through talent, consistency, and a great work ethic, and those very attributes will ensure she continues to improve on a game that has been one of the success stories of 2010.