Towards the end of the first set in the second-round match between Caroline Wozniacki and Dayana Yastremska, the pattern of points went something like this: Yastremska forehand winner; Yastremska backhand unforced error; Yastremska ace; Yastremska forehand unforced error; Yastremska backhand winner; Yastremska double fault.
If you were looking just at the scoreboard, you’d think there was only one player on the court, with everything resting on her racquet. But Wozniacki has made a career out of surviving, and then turning around, such matches. Just when you think there’s nothing she can do to make an impression, she sneaks in a crucial point that changes everything.
She certainly changed everything in those wildly fluctuating moments at the end of the first set. Yastremska had threatened to blow her off the court in the first half hour of the match, building a 5-1 lead through a flurry of eye-popping winners. But while some of the shots she hit seemed unbelievable, so did her collapse in the face of just a little resistance from the Dane.
“There was no real proper feeling out there today because she came out swinging, and she started making the lines and everything was going in, even balls that I don’t think she knew were possible to hit it that way,” Wozniacki said after her 7-5, 7-5 win. “I was just thinking to myself, ‘It surely can’t continue. If it’s going to continue, then there is not much I can do out there.’ I also knew if I could stay with her the first two, three points after the serve and after the return, then it was getting more into my favor. So that’s really what I was going to try and do out there.”
It sounds simple when she puts it like that, but it is far from simple in reality. Merely digging in your heels and trying to extend points when everything is flying past you: How can that be a practical solution? How can it really work, unless your opponent starts misfiring?
Wozniacki is one of the very few who knows how, because she is one of the very few who can execute the strategy with regularity and precision. And that consistent success, born out of hopeless desperation, is what we’ll miss the most when she retires from the game after this Australian Open.
The trick, as the Dane showed once again, is to make the opponent start misfiring. After going down 1-5, she didn’t just start getting more balls back, she also started doing different things with the ball, forcing Yastremska to put a little more thought into her play.
Out came the moonballs, the off-pace low forehands, the quick changes in direction with the backhand — it was the full Wozniacki repertoire, which is always more dangerous than it looks. Moonballing is not a tactic that’s easy on the eyes, but you can’t deny its effectiveness. And Wozniacki has proven over the last decade and a half that she’s a master of it.
Yastremska was still getting a lot of time to unload on her groundstrokes, but she wasn’t getting to hit them from the same spot over and over again. The moonballs, in particular, threw her off, forced her to take a step back in order to time her shots properly, and eventually, she lost her rhythm — and with it her focus.
An experienced player would’ve probably still retained control of the proceedings, considering Wozniacki wasn’t exactly dictating the pace herself. But Yastremska is just 19 years old, and in those crunch moments, she showed her age. Instead of powering on with her trusted combinations, she let Wozniacki get into her head; instead of working the rallies with depth and precision, she started pulling the trigger too early.
The second set followed almost exactly the same pattern as the first. Yastremska quickly built up a double break lead at 3-0, but then gave up both of them through a string of errors. She did play some breathtakingly brave tennis to save three match points at 4-5, and two more at 5-6, but you could sense that she was running out of time.
On the sixth match point, Wozniacki engaged Yastremska in another rally filled with loopy backhands and tempting short forehands. And the Ukrainian, probably frustrated out of her mind by then, couldn’t rein in her instincts any longer and finally missed a forehand.
As the two women approached the net for the handshake, it was hard not to marvel at the manner in which Wozniacki had lived to fight another day. This was a performance that was as idiosyncratic as any you could hope for in her last tournament. ‘Vintage Wozniacki’ is not a term that’s heard too often, but it probably should, because how else can we describe a match where she seemed to be doing nothing at all, and yet somehow won all the battles?
“I was just, like, it’s coming really fast at me,” she said. “She’s not making a lot of mistakes. I’m not getting depth on the ball. I was trying to think what to do out there to change that…Let’s try and slow it down a little bit and get a little extra time out there.”
‘Extra time’ is exactly what she got — in the points, and also in the tournament. She will now face Ons Jabeur in the third round, and if she wins that she will likely run into Serena Williams. How cool would it be for Wozniacki’s last professional match to be against the GOAT, who also happens to be a good friend of hers?
If her win over Yastremska is any indication though, Wozniacki won’t go down without a fight — no matter how heavily the odds are stacked against her. She will do everything in her power to stay in the points and the games and the matches just a little bit longer, even if it means moonballing and looping her opponents to distraction.
That’s always been the Wozniacki Way, after all.
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Updated Date: Jan 22, 2020 15:24:53 IST