Wednesday March 28th, 2012

Caroline Wozniacki

Caroline Wozniacki showed newfound aggression in her win over Serena Williams. (Matthew Stockman/Getty Images)

In a tournament that has seen Andy Roddick upset Roger Federer and Venus Williams take out No. 3 Petra Kvitova in her first tournament since last August, how exactly can the No. 6 player beating the No. 11 player in straight sets qualify as the upset of the tournament?

Well, when that No. 6 player is Caroline Wozniacki and the No. 11 is Serena Williams, it matters greatly. Wozniacki scored, arguably, the biggest win of her career Tuesday when she out-steadied a very shaky Serena 6-4, 6-4, in the quarterfinals of the Sony Ericsson Open in Miami.

The tennis gods can be so cruel. How different would the book on Wozniacki be if this result had occurred six months ago? During her 67-week reign atop the WTA rankings, one of the biggest knocks against her -- aside from her failure to win a Grand Slam title -- was that she couldn't beat the players most people believed to be the best in the game: Serena and Kim Clijsters. If she could just knock off either while she was No. 1, the criticisms and doubt surrounding the effectiveness of her relatively weaponless game would dissipate.

As luck would have it, Wozniacki got only two bites at the apple, playing Serena at the U.S. Open in 2011 and Clijsters at the Australian Open earlier this year. In both matches she was summarily dismissed, and the weaknesses in her game -- namely her attackable serve, technically flawed forehand and tendency to play a defensive pushing style -- were exposed. Those losses meant one thing: Regardless of the number next to her name, there's no way Wozniacki was the best tennis player in the game.

Skip ahead a few months and she's now dropped to No. 6. She's asked more about her famous boyfriend than her game, and though she still flashes the smile that earned her the "Sunshine" nickname, there's been a noticeable cloud of insecurity and doubt surrounding her. She's been more than under the radar in both Indian Wells and Miami, quietly making it through the draw with little fanfare. The Dane has been teetering on the edge of relevance for a month because of her lackluster 2012 results (zero titles, three losses to players outside of the top 15). Wozniacki went from being the player of her young generation to suddenly chasing down three of them -- Victoria Azarenka, Kvitova and Agnieszka Radwanska. While those three were having milestone wins and streaks over the last year, Wozniacki's career has been defined more for her losses and failures. Sometimes sports are cruel like that.

There have been no calls for Wozniacki to completely retool her game and transform herself into a ball-bashing automaton. She just needed to add some aggression, employing her serve as more of a weapon, pouncing on short balls and using her solid backhand to take control of rallies and terminate them. She finally did all of that Tuesday against Serena. Wozniacki's ability to execute those tactical changes, combined with a subpar performance from Williams, enabled her to win in rather comfortable fashion.

How weird was this match? Serena didn't earn a break point until Wozniacki served for the match at 6-4 5-2, and for most of the match, Wozniacki had more aces than Serena (who served 20 in her fourth-round win over Samantha Stosur). The trademark Wozniacki game was still there: quick movement, great anticipation and defense, and steely determination. But over that base lay a thin layer of aggression. It wasn't prevalent throughout the match -- Wozniacki finished with 12 winners and 12 unforced errors -- but at key moments when you expected Wozniacki to back off and rely on her defense, she'd step in to fire a backhand deep up the line to catch Serena off guard. There was a little more pop and intent on her forehand, and she was stepping up to the line and serving well. The aggressive intent -- within the framework of her otherwise defensive game -- allowed Wozniacki to do some of the best counterpunching of her career.

Williams was nowhere near her best, a disappointing letdown after her strong win over Stosur. She hit 33 winners and 38 unforced errors, most notably failing to take advantage of Wozniacki's second serve. So many sitters in the middle of the box ended up in the net and Serena's frustration mounted as the match progressed. Wozniacki wasn't giving her any free points, and Williams couldn't get her game out of neutral.

With Clijsters' third-round loss to Yanina Wickmayer and Serena's inability to get past the quarterfinals in Miami for the first time since 2005, maybe it's time to acknowledge the fact that being a part-time player on the WTA Tour simply doesn't work these days. The consistency that allows a player to string together five-to-seven wins for a title is earned by grinding it out on a weekly basis. You can't just parachute in every once in a while and walk away with a trophy. The quality of the field is too good for that. It's been a long time since we've seen Wozniacki flash as big a smile as she did on match point. It was a combination of relief and pride, a quality that can't be underestimated with the Dane. She has a lot of it and we'll see if this win jump-starts her 2012. She advances to meet Maria Sharapova in the semifinals Thursday and a win there could set up -- depending on what happens in the other half of the draw -- a showdown with Azarenka. That's a match I would love to see, especially if Wozniacki is able to build on what she was able to do tactically against Williams.

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