Bryan Armen Graham
Tuesday January 25th, 2011

After outlasting Francesca Schiavone on Tuesday, Caroline Wozniacki (above) left 'em laughing at her press conference. (Ryan Pierse/Getty Images)

MELBOURNE, Australia -- For a minute there it looked like the hook was coming for Caroline Wozniacki, as if all the material she used to work the digicam and microphone crowd might cost her the big stage. Derided in the English-speaking press as dull since she turned pro in 2005, the 20-year-old Wozniacki has recast herself at the Australian Open as the draw’s resident cutup, Henny Youngman with a racket. (Take my slice -- please!)

Her nine days at the tournament have played out like a date in the Catskills, and no Wozniacki show has been the same. On Thursday came the premiere and a one-woman Q&A that killed. On Sunday she thrilled with a yarn about fighting a kangaroo, but no one was laughing later when the story was revealed as fiction.

Sensing an audience about to turn, Wozniacki reappeared five hours later to explain herself. She was contrite in her encore (“I’m sorry if I caused an inconvenience. I didn’t think you would believe it,” she said, but added that the Danish press got the joke.), but couldn’t duck behind the curtain again without leaving ’em laughing. Didn’t like that story? Try this one on for size: “Seeing all [you] guys here, it’s great,” she said. “All of you good looking guys and girls, it’s really hard for me to concentrate right now.”

Focus was even more elusive for the top-ranked Wozniacki during her 3-6, 6-3, 6-3 quarterfinal victory against sixth-seeded Francesca Schiavone on Tuesday. At the start, she looked as if she might bomb at Rod Laver Arena. There, it was her strokes -- not her jokes -- that lacked punch, enough to make one wonder whether all that gigging earlier in the fortnight had exacted a price on her game. What’s worse, she was getting upstaged by the ebullient Schiavone, a seasoned performer if there ever was one. The 30-year-old Italian, who has 10 years and seven Australian Open appearances on Wozniacki and had been on court twice as long (more than 11 hours) as the top-ranked Dane, doesn’t just work a room; she turns out the lights. Her third-round victory over Svetlana Kuznetsova last Sunday -- a match that required a record 4 hours and 44 minutes to complete -- was supposed to have exhausted Schiavone’s reserves. But on Tuesday she showed she can do more with fumes than most players can on a full tank. “She’s a very difficult player to play against because she’s mixing it up quite a bit,” Wozniacki said. “She’s playing with big topspin. She goes to the net quite a bit as well.”

Where Schiavone’s marathon match on Sunday was a marvel, Tuesday’s 5K was an inspiration. She went for broke from the baseline and brought spectators to their feet with her drop shots; by the 13th game she was up a set and a break. “I [had] the chance to do to win,” said Schiavone, who next week will become the first Italian to be ranked fourth in the world. “I had the quality to do it.”

But as the match wore on, the magic wore off and Schiavone’s fatigue evinced itself in her efficiency. Pilling errors like vermicelli -- 34 of them on her scythe-like backhand -- Schiavone dropped six games in a row, but that hardly compelled a pivot from her aggressive approach. “If I do like this, I can’t win one match,” Schiavone said. While she kept swinging for the steep seats and saved three match points in the process, Wozniacki stuck to the low-risk (15 unforced errors), low-reward (14 winners) gameplan that has become her (boring) trademark. Match point came on a replay challenge.

Ironic that the same player who is so eager to take chances off the court plays it so safe between the lines. That could prove her undoing against a big hitter like Kim Clijsters, whom Wozniacki is favored to meet in Saturday's final. “For the moment I see Kim a little bit better than Caroline,” Schiavone said. “But Caroline has really good quality mentally and physically.”

Can all of her defense win her a championship? “Sorry, said Schiavone, through a coy smile. “I don’t know.”

Wozniacki, however, is certain it will. After all, it’s gotten her this far. “My game is to win,” she said. “If sometimes I need to step it up, I try to do that. I can still improve in many areas, but I’m on the right track.”

Still, her game couldn’t possibly evolve at the roadrunner’s pace of her act. Her standup shtick honed, she’s moved on to prop comedy. After her match she strode into her news conference in boxing gloves and carrying an inflatable kangaroo, a gift from an adoring media member -- maybe a Gallagher fan. “Now I’m ready to fight just in case it would actually attack me, so I have the gloves on,” she said. On and on the routine went until the audience under her spell. Say this much for Wozniacki: she makes the hype and she meets it. Perhaps it’s time to take this kidder more seriously.

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