Denmark's Caroline Wozniacki, 20, is through to the U.S. Open quarterfinals after Monday's convincing victory over Maria Sharapova in straight sets. (AP)
Unlike Dinara Safina and Ana Ivanovic, both of whom suffered within the noose of the World Number 1 ranking, Caroline Wozniacki is relishing her top-seeded status at this year’s U.S. Open, even if most tennis fans have placed a Serena-sized asterisk next to the skinny number by her name.
There is an eerie comfort surrounding the Dane, and her convincing 6-3, 6-4 win over Maria Sharapova under late-afternoon sunshine at Arthur Ashe Stadium was a clinic in how defensive tennis can be both artful and deadly.
Sharapova dictated the points early with powerful strokes off both wings, but Wozniacki calmly retrieved everything Sharapova threw at her. When Sharapova dug deep into her bag of tricks to change up the momentum -- she tried drop shots and lobs -- Wozniacki retrieved those attempts as well. The Dane also used some weapons of her own, including an improved serve and an accurate forehand down the line. Her game plan was executed to perfection: Extend the rallies and force Sharapova to make mistakes on the move. And the Russian complied. Sharapova committed 36 unforced errors and nine double faults in what many tennis writers afterward called the most impressive win of Wozniacki’s short career. She’ll next face unseeded Dominika Cibulkova of Slovenia, who cut down No. 11 Svetlana Kuznetsova. “I knew she was going to try to attack me from the beginning,” said Wozniacki. “I knew she was trying to be aggressive. For me it was important to keep as many balls in the court but still try to move her around and try to dictate as well. “
“I had my chances and I was 1-for-8 on breakpoints,” Sharapova said. “Against someone that's playing really well, playing with a lot of confidence, it's really important to take those chances that you have, the very few that come your way. I felt like I played a couple of good points and then made an easy error, hit a return long or missed a first serve. I gave her many looks at second‑serve returns, and didn't feel like I put much pressure on her.”
Serving at 3-3, 30-40 in the second set, Sharapova hit another wayward serve to give Wozniacki the key second-set break. Two games later, in what was arguably the biggest service game of her career, Wozniacki crushed a backhand winner for the victory. Though her resume is light with wins over Top 10 players in 2010 -- Agnieszka Radwanska and Francesca Schiavone –- no player has been more consistent. Wozniacki owns titles from Ponte Vedra Beach, Copenhagen, Montreal and New Haven, and she and Venus Williams are the only players in 2010 to reach the fourth round or better in every major. Prior to the Sharapova match, Wozniacki had dropped just three games in three matches, the fewest games conceded in reaching the fourth round since Mary Pierce (two) at the 1994 French Open. “My life is changing the way that I believe in myself,” Wozniacki said. “ I know when I go on court I have the possibility to win against every player out there."
Beating Sharapova is no small feat. The Russian was seeded No. 14 but that’s not reflective of where her game is, because she’s still working her way up the rankings after major shoulder surgery in late 2008. She was bidding to reach her first quarterfinal of a Grand Slam since the 2009 French Open, but now that will have to wait until Australia. Still, she won 12 of 15 matches following Wimbledon and nearly picked off Serena Williams at the All England Club. Her serve, Sharapova said, is what has been the most difficult to return to form. "I think I could easily at this stage in my career just say, 'You know, I have won Grand Slams. I have been there and done that,'" Sharapova said after beating 18-year-old Beatrice Capra 6-0, 6-0 on Saturday. "But I never felt like I had enough. I always felt like I could be a better tennis player."
Wozniacki is fast becoming a better player before our eyes. She's 18-1 since Wimbledon, losing only to Marion Bartoli at Cincinnati. She’s also learning to deflect tricky questions. At the end of her post-match press conference on Monday, an male Austrian reporter ridiculously commented on her dress. “Don’t you think it’s a little short?” he said.
Wozniacki smiled and laughed. “I think it's nice,” she replied, “and I definitely am sure I'll get a lot of male fans now.”