Tuesday, January 24, 2012
Same sad ending for Wozniacki at the Slams
By Joanne C. Gerstner
World No. 1 Caroline Wozniacki is clearly a talented tennis player. She has precise groundstrokes, an acceptable serve, is one of the fittest in the game and is continually playing matches and winning tournaments.
But being acceptable and precise does not yet translate into Wozniacki winning that elusive first Grand Slam title. The 2012 Australian Open will not be won by Wozniacki, and she will lose her top ranking at the end of the tournament, thanks to a 6-2, 7-6 (5) loss to No. 11 Kim Clijsters on Tuesday.
She had been ranked No. 1 for the past 18 months, but the quarterfinals loss will move either Petra Kvitova, Maria Sharapova or Victoria Azarenka -- who are all still alive in singles -- into the top spot soon.
Clijsters, the defending Australian Open champion, will play No. 3 Azarenka in Thursday's semifinals. Azarenka's 6-7, 6-0, 6-2 win over Agnieska Radwanska was similar in style to Clijsters, as it was a tale of a power player overcoming the counterpuncher.
It wasn't a matter of Wozniacki losing the match because of the punishingly hot conditions (nearly 100 degrees on court). It was due to the script dictated by Clijsters, seizing quick control through her power and aggressiveness, and not giving a bit of it back until her lapse late in the second set.
"I had to work really hard for it," Clijsters said after the match. "Caroline is a great fighter. I was happy to not have a three-setter because it's so hot."
Clijsters powering through Wozniacki is not a new thing at a hard-court Grand Slam, as she did a similar feat at the 2009 U.S. Open. Clijsters overwhelmed Wozniacki 7-5, 6-3, to win her first major after returning to tennis earlier that year.
But things seemed like they could be tipping in favor of Wozniacki this time around. There were many questions surrounding the state of Clijsters' left ankle coming into the match, as she had rolled it badly in her fourth round win on Sunday over Li Na. She practiced lightly on Monday and admitted her ankle was swollen and stiff.
Would she be able to stay with the speedy and fit Wozniacki?
The answers were quickly and consistently provided by Clijsters, who showed no signs of anything being wrong with her ankle. She moved fluidly for most of the match and even threw in about seven of her trademark near-splits on defense for additional evidence.
Wozniacki's weakness, a lack of a true weapon, was exploited over and over by Clijsters. The pair had long rallies, trading hard groundstrokes and running each other all over the court. But in the end, invariably, a blasted inside-out forehand or a ripped crosscourt backhand from Clijsters would win the battle.
Clijsters was playing Wozniacki's game well, keeping the ball in play and waiting for the opponent to make the unforced error or adding the final word through her power. The two women are of similar stature: Clijsters stands 5-foot-9 and Wozniacki at 5-10, but it was clear Clijsters carries the bigger stick.
Wozniacki indeed made fewer unforced errors in the match, with 26, but only managed to hit 13 winners. Clijsters risked more, making 40 unforced errors, but also connected more, with 39 winners.
Clijsters raced through the first set, breaking Wozniacki's serve four times. She zipped through most of the second set too, building a 5-2 lead, and seemed to be on her way to a clean win.
Credit Wozniacki's tenacity, and debit Clijsters for a clear dip in concentration and movement, for making things interesting in the last five games. Wozniacki managed to win three games in a row, keeping Clijsters out there to fight for the win. Clijsters noticeably slowed and became prone to unforced errors at 5-2, allowing Wozniacki to hold and gain some confidence.
Both players were noticeably hot, trying to sneak as many breaks as possible in the shady corners of the court. Clijsters even tossed water and ice over her head during changeovers in an attempt to cool down. Their red cheeks and soaked tennis clothes revealed that the heat was becoming a nuisance for both of them.
In the end, when it mattered the most in the tiebreaker, Clijsters came back to play with power and authority. She won the last three points on winners, punctuating the match-winner by closing in and hammering a short forehand.
This is the first time Clijsters has beaten a world No. 1 in five tries at a Grand Slam, having lost in the past to players such as Justine Henin and Lindsay Davenport. And the argument will continue to haunt Wozniacki that she has never had the gravitas to be a respected and true No. 1 in tennis because she has been unable to win a Grand Slam.
Until Wozniacki develops something -- from a tougher serve to a net game -- to threaten her top peers, this could be a frustrating scenario that will keep repeating for her at the Grand Slams. The contenders for the No. 1 spot, such as Kvitova and Sharapova, are big and hit even bigger. And put Clijsters up there, if her body allows her to continue to play this way in her final year of tennis.
Wozniacki's strength of being a world-class counterpuncher may be good enough to beat 95 percent of the players on tour and win the New Haven Open four times running.
But it's the very best that will continue to terror Wozniacki, and like Clijsters did Tuesday, likely besting her in future Grand Slams through their punishing power and aggressiveness.