NEW YORK – Entering the 2015 U.S. Open, fourth-seed Caroline Wozniacki was where she has been for much of her career—near the top of women’s tennis. But after a second round exit, and later a retirement from the WTA Elite Trophy in November, the former World No. 1 was in a very unfamiliar spot. Wozniacki finished at No. 17 in the year-end rankings her worst since 2007 when she was 17-years-old.
Then bad became worse. Wozniacki fell in the first round of the Australian Open and rolled her ankle during a practice in April, forcing her out of tournament play until the grass court season. She started to gain some momentum in her first events back, enough to win a couple of matches at her last warm-up event in Eastbourne. But then the Dane drew the No. 13 seed, Svetlana Kuznetsova, in the first round of Wimbledon. The Russian knocked Wozniacki out in straight sets.
“It's been a tough year in general. It's been some injuries, it's been some bad draws. Yeah, it's been uphill,” Wozniacki said after the loss. “But, you know, you just have to keep fighting, keep going at it, keep working hard, and hope eventually that's going to turn and you're going to take the chances you're going to get.”
The World No. 74 took her chance in the second round of the U.S. Open on Wednesday against a familiar foe in Kuznetsova, who she was playing for the third time in Flushing Meadows. She ousted the No. 9-seed and two-time finalist 6-4, 6-4.
It was not as simple as the score line shows, though. The match looked like it would be similar to Wozniacki’s season—an uphill climb—as Kuznetsova managed to grab a 4-0 lead in the opening set.
“It's not like I was playing bad,” Wozniacki said. “I was actually feeling the ball pretty well. She started off on fire, and I was just, I need to keep fighting and keep going. Hopefully I'll find a way to change the score.”
Wozniacki reeled off six consecutive games to take the first set and an early lead in the second. Kuznetsova started off well, patiently working Wozniacki around the court and not overplaying, but soon she began to make more unforced errors, going for too much in points too quickly.
“I have had matches against Sveta so many times before here where she's been killing [me] literally on court 6-1, 4-1, and then I have managed to come back and win the match in three sets,” Wozniacki said. “It's like, ‘You know what? Just keep going, wait for your opportunity and your chance,’ and I did that today.”
Kuznetsova felt that her impatience played right into her opponent’s comfort zone, and out of hers.
“I started to play too fast and when couple games slipped away I lost the set,” said Kuznetsova, who made 31 unforced errors in the 104-minute match. “It was just five minutes ago I was 4-0 up and it’s 6-4. So that moment I shouldn’t let happen.”
In the second set, Wozniacki continued to frustrate her opponent, jumping ahead to a 5-2 lead. But in just moments, Kuznetsova found her way back on serve at 4-5, two points from drawing even in the set.
“It's not fun when you're up 5-2 and all of a sudden it's 5-4 and she's serving 30-Love,” Wozniacki said. “You're like, ‘Did I just let her back into the match?’ I actually, you know, kept going for it. It's not like I was thinking, ‘Oh, I am tentative and that's why I'm losing.’”
It was only fitting that she won the match with a winner.
Wozniacki now plays a familiar opponent in Romanian Monica Niculescu, who she has never dropped a set against in six matches between the two. While they have not played since 2013 and only faced off once at a Grand Slam, Wozniacki has lost fewer than three games per set on average.
“She's a tricky player. She gets a lot of balls back,” Wozniacki said. “It's going to be long rallies. She's got a slice for forehand and backhand side. She's going to mix the pace. It's definitely going to be a match where I need to keep cool and just have fun with it, really."
It is a good opportunity for the 26-year-old to make another solid run at a major. She has made the second week only once since making the final at the U.S. Open in 2014, her second championship match appearance at the tournament (2009).
“You know, honestly I just have fun now,” Wozniacki said. “I love playing tennis. That's why I play. At the end of the day, I know my worth. I know how good I can play. I know that, you know, with hard work hopefully I can get back there. Today was definitely a step in the right direction.”