Steve Flink: Wozniacki Claims Her Most Prestigious Prize

Examine the trajectory of Caroline Wozniacki's career, and it becomes strikingly apparent that this is a woman of many virtues, a player of style and stability, and a competitor of the highest order. Look closely at her record, and the numbers provide the evidence of Wozniacki's significance in the modern world of women's tennis. She concluded both 2010 and 2011 as the No. 1 ranked player in the game. She has finished seven seasons among the top ten, and ten years as a member of the top 20. Twice she has reached the final of the U.S. Open. Her consistency is unassailable, her industriousness indisputable, her professionalism second to none.

But the fact remains that this 27-year-old from Denmark has not yet secured a Grand Slam tournament title. She has too often been at the mercy of the bigger hitters. As much success as she has celebrated, as often as she has found victory through grit, guile and ingenuity, the most prestigious prizes have always eluded her. And that is why her triumph in Singapore at the BNP Paribas WTA Finals must be particularly gratifying and psychically rewarding for the dignified Wozniacki.

To be clear, the WTA Finals is not commensurate with the four majors, which stand at the forefront of the game. Those Grand Slam events are almost immeasurable in their value, and every player of stature wants those titles more than any of the others. The majors matter most; it is as simple as that. But the fact remains that Wozniacki's triumph in Singapore is not to be taken lightly. The WTA Finals is right up there behind the majors, arguably the fifth most significant tournament, and a very elite event reserved only for the top eight performers in women's tennis. At the end of a long and debilitating season, in a neutral setting on a slow indoor surface, against the best of the breed, it is a tall task to rule in Singapore and take away such a high honor under demanding circumstances.

Wozniacki did just that, ousting Venus Williams 6-4, 6-4 in the title round contest, defeating her American adversary for the first time in eight career head to head appointments, withstanding a spirited surge from the 37-year-old icon in the latter stages that would have shaken and perhaps crushed a less resilient individual. Wozniacki, however, refused to surrender. She knew that her level of play had been consistently higher than any other player in the field all week long. She realized that the slow court suited her to the hilt, and recognized that Williams had worked inordinately hard to reach the final.

Unmistakably, there were numerous signs that Wozniacki might achieve a victory at last against her old rival. The way she started the encounter only reinforced that notion. From the outset, her ground game was extraordinarily precise. Her point construction was first rate. Her return of serve was excellent. Moreover, Wozniacki's serve—the most markedly improved part of her game in 2017—was exceptional. Her wide serve in the deuce court—delivered very accurately with just the right dose of slice—kept Williams at bay. But what impressed me even more was the depth of her second serve, which kept Wozniacki out of trouble for the most part. Williams wasn't getting the openings she needed to tee off on returns and rock Wozniacki back on her heels.

Williams, meanwhile, looked somewhat fatigued, and Wozniacki was reading her opponent's serve exceedingly well throughout the match. Although the American put 71% of her first serves in play, she won only 55% of those points—well below her normal standard. In turn, Williams took only 6 of 20 second serve points (30%). Undoubtedly she was not at her peak physically. The American wanted to win an awful lot of free points on serve as well as punctuating rallies with crackling shots from the back of the court. In both cases, Williams did not accomplish what she needed. In fact, she did not come close.

Wozniacki met nearly all of her aims. Across the two sets, she made only eight unforced errors. Williams, seeking to end points swiftly, knowing Wozniacki had the clear edge in the longer backcourt exchanges, made no fewer than 24 unprovoked mistakes. Williams did unleash 31 winners (twelve more than Wozniacki) but that did not compensate for her clusters of mistakes and Wozniacki's unwillingness to give anything away. As the curtain closed on the proceedings in Singapore, Wozniacki's healthier margin for error and cleaner ball striking was too much for Williams, who was outplayed and outmaneuvered across the board.

To the match. Wozniacki held at love in the opening game as Williams missed twice off the backhand, once off the forehand, and once on a somewhat difficult backhand volley. Two of those mistakes were unforced. Two were the result of Wozniacki probing cagily. Williams answered with an impressive hold at 15, releasing an ace, two winning volleys and a forehand groundstroke winner in that sparkling game. It was 1-1. Wozniacki started the third game stylishly with an ace out wide, and went on to hold at 15 for 2-1. Now she made her move. With Venus serving the first point of the fourth game, Wozniacki came to the net. Williams lobbed over the Dane. Wozniacki scampered back, lofted a decent yet unexceptional lob, and Venus bungled the smash.

Still, Williams advanced to 40-15. Yet Wozniacki had no intention of conceding that game. She won the next point on an unforced error off the forehand from Williams, and climbed to deuce on a forehand passing shot winner that became routine when the American failed to put away a high forehand volley. A backhand winner down the line from Wozniacki brought her to break point. She narrowly missed a backhand return but a penetrating backhand down the line gave Wozniacki a second break point opportunity. Williams tried to break Wozniacki's rhythm with a looped backhand down the line, but the Danish player was unbothered, driving a forehand down the line into an open space. 3-1, Wozniacki.

Wozniacki made it to 30-30 in the fifth game, but Williams persuasively went on the attack, walloping a forehand crosscourt, moving forward, anticipating Wozniacki's response, and putting away a high forehand volley convincingly. Then Williams accelerated the pace off her backhand to elicit a backhand error from Wozniacki. The score now stood at 3-2 for Wozniacki. Williams released an ace for 30-15 in the sixth game, double faulted on the following point, but collected the next two points to gain level ground at 3-3, closing out that game with another winning volley off the forehand side. Williams may be better known for her forehand swing volley, but no one in women's tennis has a better punch volley off the forehand side than this remarkable woman. No one.

Down 15-30 in the seventh game, Wozniacki sensed the need to bear down, and that is precisely what she did. A deep second serve coaxed Williams into a return error for 30-30. Now good fortune came Wozniacki's way. Her let cord forehand down the line fell over for a winner. Wozniacki took full advantage, sending an effective second serve to the Williams backhand. The American missed the return. 4-3 for Wozniacki. Williams led 40-30 in the eighth game, but drove a two-hander long in response to a deep shot from the Danish woman. Now Wozniacki displayed her match playing acumen, angling a forehand crosscourt, opening up the court for a forehand down the line winner. At break point, Wozniacki came through beautifully. From outside the court, she snapped a forehand down the line for an outright winner to conclude a stirring 22 stroke exchange. On to 5-3 went an unswerving Wozniacki.

But Williams was undaunted. A deep return set up a forehand down the line winner for 15-40, and then a dazzling backhand down the line winner enabled Venus to break back for the second time in the set. Now the American was back to 4-5, serving to extend the set in the tenth game. Yet immediately Williams drifted into precarious territory. Consecutive unforced errors off the forehand put her behind 0-30. Wozniacki inexplicably attempted a backhand drop shot from too far back, netting that shot to allow Williams back to 15-30. But Wozniacki took the next two points on a pair of unforced forehand errors from the American. Wozniacki had broken at 15, sealing the set 6-4, breaking Williams for the third time.

Now Wozniacki seemed to relax as she played from out in front. She quickly held at love for 1-0 in the second set. She did not miss a first serve in that game. At 30-30 in the second game, Williams sent a backhand volley wide down the line and then netted a backhand off the ground under no pressure. Wozniacki was ahead 2-0. She trailed 30-40 in the third game, but garnered three points in a row for the hold on a forehand unforced error from Williams, an unanswerable first serve out wide in the deuce court, and an unprovoked backhand mistake from the seven-time major singles champion. Wozniacki thus moved to 3-0.

With Williams serving in the fourth game of the second set, Wozniacki reached 15-15 with a riveting display that essentially symbolized why she was succeeding. In a 25-stroke rally, she ran balls down stupendously off both sides and eventually prevailed on an errant forehand from Williams. In the critical phase of that exchange, Venus came in, hit a smash which she could not put away, and then moved forward for a forehand volley crosscourt. She punched that volley into the corner, but Wozniacki lobbed so deep this time that Williams had to play her overhead safely and retreat to the baseline. Wozniacki's defense during that point was out of this world. Eventually, after Williams led 40-30, Wozniacki wore her down and broke for 4-0. Serving at 30-30 in the fifth game, Wozniacki produced back to back aces, moving to 5-0, seemingly building an insurmountable lead.

Williams, however, was not only prideful but also indefatigable. She held at 30 for 1-5 with a fine T serve setting up a forehand winner. Wozniacki served for the match in the seventh game with new balls, but Williams broke her at 30, approaching forcefully off the forehand, coaxing an errant backhand lob from Wozniacki. On her way to a hold at 15 for 3-5, Williams sent out two thundering forehand groundstroke winners and a forehand swing volley winner. Serving for the match a second time, Wozniacki reached 30-15, but Williams was swinging so freely now that there was no way Wozniacki could contain her. Williams connected boldly with a forehand winner for 30-30, blasted a forehand down the line that was unstoppable, and then laced a forehand crosscourt passing shot winner to gain the break.

Improbably, Williams had swept four games in a row after losing six games in succession. From two breaks down and the brink of elimination, she was back on serve, hoping to make it to 5-5, knowing that Wozniacki had to be increasingly apprehensive and somewhat bewildered to still be out there on the court. But Wozniacki dealt with her discomfort honorably. Williams led 30-15 in the tenth game, sprayed a backhand crosscourt wide, and then made another mistake. It was match point for Wozniacki, but Williams wiped it away characteristically with an audacious forehand down the line behind Wozniacki that was too good. The ensuing rally lasted 17 strokes, but Wozniacki's patience was rewarded as Williams directed a forehand down the line wide. At match point for the second time, Wozniacki counter-attacked skillfully. Williams punched a backhand volley down the line, read Wozniacki's passing shot well, and angled a backhand volley short crosscourt. But, in a flash, the wily Wozniacki was there for the winning passing shot down the line.

Perhaps Wozniacki will gain even greater satisfaction from fending off Williams at the end rather than simply completing a second set rout. The Danish player had to reach back with all of her resources to close out the 6-4, 6-4 triumph. But it was a victory well deserved. She broke Williams six times across the two sets, played more reliably and strategically from the backcourt, served intelligently and did a far better job on the return of serve. In seven previous clashes against Williams, Wozniacki had taken only one set, although those numbers are slightly misleading because four of the wins for Williams occurred in 2007 and 2008 before Wozniacki was ready to compete on that level.

In any event, the WTA Finals gave us a number of compelling matches all week long. The Red Group featured world No. 1 Simona Halep, Elina Svitolina, Wozniacki and Caroline Garcia. Competing in the White Group were Wimbledon champion Garbine Muguruza, Karolina Pliskova, Williams and French Open victor Jelena Ostapenko. Halep had only recently achieved the No. 1 ranking and one hoped she might validate that status with a triumph in Singapore. But after the Romanian had opened her campaign with a 6-4, 6-2 win over Garcia, she was taken apart 6-0, 6-2 by Wozniacki. Had she gone on to defeat Svitolina in her last round robin match, Halep would have made it to the semifinals, but she lost that contest 6-3, 6-4. The slow court should have been a plus for Halep, but she had a disappointing week. Despite the less than stellar showing in Singapore, Halep still wraps up the year at No. 1 without winning a major, and despite reaching only one Grand Slam tournament final (Roland Garros). In my view, a player with that record is very fortunate to finish at the top of the ladder.

Be that as it may, Wozniacki not only had that one-sided win over Halep, but she also opened with a 6-2, 6-0 triumph over Svitolina. When she won a 6-0 first set from Garcia in her last round robin contest, Wozniacki was guaranteed a place in the semifinal lineup. But few observers in the know anticipated what would unfold the rest of the way in that battle. Garcia fought back ferociously. An emotional player with a lot of flair in her game, bold as a shotmaker and brave as a competitor, she took the second set from Wozniacki 6-3.

That was no mean feat. Through her first five sets of the tournament, Wozniacki had dropped only four games. But now the pace setter of the tournament found herself unexpectedly in a third set against a dangerous opponent. Wozniacki built a 5-3 lead in that final set. Garcia held at 30 in the ninth game but Wozniacki served for the match at 5-4 and went to 30-15. But she drove a two-hander down the line into the net, making a surprising unforced error. Rather than being up double match point, Wozniacki was locked at 30-30. She would fight off two break points but on the third she made another unforced error off the backhand.

Garcia then held from 0-40 at 5-5. Wozniacki even led 40-30 in the twelfth game but it was not her day. A gutsy Garcia prevailed 0-6, 6-3, 7-5 to earn a place in the semifinals. That was the best round robin match contested in the Red Group, with honorable mention going to Garcia's gritty 6-7 (7), 6-3, 7-5 victory over Svitolina.

In the White Group, Williams was involved in the two most compelling matches. Having lost her opening match decisively to Pliskova 6-2, 6-2, the 37-year-old needed three hours and thirteen minutes to overcome Ostapenko in a fascinating showdown.

Ostapenko served for the first set at 5-4 but the serve is the primary weakness in her game. She lost three games in a row and Williams salvaged the set with some clutch play at the end. After an hour and 44 minutes, Williams reached match point with Ostapenko serving at 4-5 in the second set. But Williams netted a forehand off a low ball. Ostapenko held on for 5-5, broke, lost her serve again, and on they went to a tie-break. A double fault from Venus that put her behind 5-3 was critical. Ostapenko took that tie-break 7-3.

At one stage in the final set, there were six consecutive service breaks. Both women returned boldly. Ostapenko held from 0-40 to lead 5-4, but Williams captured three games in a row to get the win 7-5, 6-7 (3), 7-5. Venus converted on 11 of 26 break points while Ostapenko made good on 9 of 18. Williams took this one predominantly on being solid when it counted. That lifted her to 1-1 in the round robin, and so it came down to a skirmish between Muruguza and Williams for a place in the semifinals.

Muguruza, of course, had ousted Williams in the Wimbledon final back in July. She had some chances to win again in Singapore. The Spaniard broke for a 4-3 first set lead. But, as she did so frequently across the tournament, Williams broke right back for 4-4. They both held until the twelfth game. Muguruza rallied from 15-40 to deuce but Williams uncorked a brilliant backhand crosscourt winner to earn a third set point. Now Muruguza missed badly off the forehand. Set to Williams, 7-5.

Muguruza was up a break no less than three times in the second set, but was found wanting every time. Serving to stay in the match and remain in the tournament, Muguruza played an abysmal game. Williams came through 7-5, 6-4.

And so the semifinals pitted Williams against Garcia and Wozniacki against Pliskova, who won her first two round robin matches over Venus and Muguruza by identical 6-2, 6-2 scores before falling 6-3, 6-1 against Ostapenko. Pliskova came out firing freely against Wozniacki. The first set of that penultimate round collision provided a scintillating contrast in styles. Pliskova possesses one of the best serves in women's tennis and an explosive ground game. Wozniacki combats players of her ilk with excellent depth and outstanding defense.

Wozniacki trailed 5-3 in the first set but broke back at love. Nonetheless, the eventual champion then cast aside three set points in the tenth game and held on gamely for 5-5 after six deuces, closing that crucial game with an ace. At 6-6, they commenced a tie-break. Wozniacki served another ace to forge a 6-1 lead in that stirring sequence. Pliskova, though, was unfazed. She saved five set points (the last with an ace) on her way back to 6-6. Another ace propelled Pliskova into a 7-6 lead with a set point of her own. Wozniacki retaliated with a backhand winner down the line. Pliskova had two more set points at 8-7 and 9-8, but Wozniacki fought her way out of danger, winning the tie-break 11-9 on her sixth set point after saving six set points. From 3-3 in the second set, Wozniacki secured three games in a row at the cost of only three points.

Wozniacki prevailed 7-6 (9), 6-3 for her place in the final. Her reliability from the backcourt was the determining factor. She made only nine unforced errors while Pliskova had three times as many. Williams had to fight longer and harder to subdue Garcia. Williams lost a tie-break in the first set. Serving at 0-1 in that sequence, she double faulted twice. She claimed the next two points on Garcia's serve but then dropped two more on her own delivery. Garcia won that tie-break seven points to three. But Garcia missed out on two critical opportunities in the second set. Williams served her way out of a 15-40 corner in the first game. And then, ahead 4-2, she saved a break point with an outstanding second serve down the T. Williams won that set 6-2. From 3-3 in the third set, she captured three games in a row, holding from 0-40 at 5-3. The American got the job done commendably 6-7 (3), 6-2, 6-3.

But Williams had spent too much emotional energy all week long in reaching the final. But, more importantly, Wozniacki was primed for the battle, ready to claim the biggest prize of her career, and eager to display that she can win when it counts. Wozniacki's triumphant run in Singapore gave her a much needed lift at the end of an arduous season, from No. 6 in the WTA Rankings to a loftier status up at No. 3. Now her mission must be to go full force after a major next year, to realize that Singapore could be the start of a journey to a new state of mind and a level of play she has never approached before.

Her longtime followers were surely encouraged by what they witnessed from Wozniacki in Singapore. She has seemingly found the right blend of increased aggression along with her familiar pattern of an unshakable temperament and sustained consistency from the baseline. Moreover, both her first and second serves are significantly improved. There will still be days when adversaries blow her off the court with ultra aggression and overwhelming power off both sides. There will be moments of doubt, periods of susceptibility to hard losses, and stretches when she falls back into her comfort zone of being careful rather than taking calculated risks and opening up freely off both wings. She still has a tendency to steer the forehand when she could drive through it more forcefully, but that happens a whole lot less frequently nowadays. The view here is that 2018 is going to be the year when Caroline Wozniacki finds a path leading to a first triumph at a major. If that happens, we will reflect on Singapore and assess her victory there as a crucial turning point in a distinguished career.

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