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Beyond the Baseline

U.S. Open Day 13 thoughts: No guts, no glory

Novak Djokovic has won his last five matches against Rafael Nadal. (David Lobel/Icon SMI)

Some thoughts on Semifinal Saturday:

Fortune favors the brave.

No player demonstrated that with more clarity than Novak Djokovic, who went for broke down match point to hit a single shot that completely changed the course of his match against Roger Federer. The Swiss bristled at his post-match press conference whenever the shot was brought up, questioning Djokovic's decision to go for such a big shot on match point, and claiming that it was "lucky." While there may be a razor thin line between bravery and stupidity, fortune favors the brave, and there's no doubt that the shot was a brave one. It worked out for Djokovic, who appears to have embraced the need for risk when he plays the top players.

But for Caroline Wozniacki, there was no risk and, consequently, there was no reward. Early in the second game of her semifinal against Serena Williams on Saturday night, Wozniacki took a backhand early, leaned into it and fired it up the line. It was a positive sign of aggression and it revealed much, a signal that the Dane was willing to take some risk and go for her shots.

But the ball sailed four feet beyond the baseline. She hardly went for an outright winner for the rest of the match.

In no uncertain terms, Wozniacki was absolutely demolished by Serena. The world No. 1 looked powerless against Serena's artillery, as she watched ace after ace, winner after winner fly right on by. She had zero winners in the first set. Absolutely none. While some of the credit goes to Serena for her foot speed and power (how can you hit a winner when you're never in a position to hit one?), Wozniacki simply could not use her shots to open up the court to create some space to go for one.

Woniacki has been adamant that she has confidence in her game and that she's reluctant to change it because, hey, she got to No. 1 with it and she's doing all right. I hope she revisits that mindset. Her game is all right, but it ain't cutting it. It's not even close.

Who'd have thunk it?

Sam Stosur admitted that she thought she already blew her one shot at a Grand Slam title when she lost to Francesca Schiavone at Roland Garros in 2010. "Because it had never happened up until that point, so you never know if it is going to happen again," she said after her semifinal win over Angelique Kerber at the U.S. Open. "Multiple people came up to me and said, 'You're going to get another chance. You can come back and make it again.' Of course you want to believe that, but until it happens, you never know if that's the case."

Since that Grand Slam breakthrough, Stosur hasn't been the same player. She's played like a player saddled with expectation who thinks she's a top-flight player but doesn't quite believe it. She's a late bloomer, cracking the top 10 at 26 years old, and it's taken some time to convince herself that she truly belongs there. It's been a rough year for Stosur in the Slams, as she never progressed past the third round in the first three events. But she kept plugging away, believing in her talent, and it's all come together on the North American concrete. She made a blistering run to the finals in Toronto, where she lost to Serena in the final. And now the No. 9 seed finds herself in her second major final, where she hopes to learn from her tough loss at the French Open.

"I guess now having been in that position, I want to make sure that I've put everything out there," Stosur said. "If there is a shot to be hit, I want to hit it. I don't want to hold back and regret anything like that."

Press conference as therapy session.

The loser's press conference is, in concept, a perverted exercise in human behavior. A bunch of people sitting around a man or woman, trying delicately to ask questions that are all variations on a theme: Why did you fail today? Most people who have to sit through that barrage have mastered the art of deflection, also known as cliché, and sometimes construed as delusion. Ninety percent of the time you get nothing insightful from the player and it seems a futile task.

But occasionally there are revealing moments when a player lets down his (or her) guard and reveals a thought that either directly or indirectly gives you clear insight into his mind. You can see them coming. The player pauses a little longer than usual after the question is asked, he leans forward and hunches down, he fiddles with imaginary crumbs on the table, and he lets loose an answer that almost makes you feel sorry you asked the question.

One such moment was in Andy Murray's press conference after his four-set loss to Rafael Nadal. Clearly saddened, the Scot mumbled through most of the questions about his match. But then he was asked whether he was bothered with the tag of being "the best player never to win a Slam." He started his answer before stopping himself, taking a breath, thinking for a split second and then as he exhaled, relinquished this thought: "I mean, if you want to judge someone's whole career based purely on Slams, I would have had a terrible career. But I don't really feel like I have."

He looked at his questioner so earnestly when he said it, almost as if the next words out of his mouth would be: "Do you?"

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