NEW YORK—Sitting in Arthur Ashe Stadium prior to the start of the opening-round appointment between Caroline Wozniacki and Samantha Stosur, I wondered if Stosur might be able to draw on memory and inspiration and make this an absorbing match for the fans. Stosur, of course, was a startling US Open champion seven years ago, toppling Serena Williams 6-2, 6-3 in the final. In her entire career, Serena has a magnificent record in Grand Slam tournament finals. Aside from her stunning setback against Stosur, she has lost only to her sister Venus (twice), Maria Sharapova, Garbine Muguruza, and Angelique Kerber (twice). Her 23-7 record in “Big Four” finals is a testament to her match-playing prowess when the stakes are highest.
And so, having joined that cast of players who have come through when it counts against Williams, Stosur has demonstrated to the New York fans what she can do when she is at the height of her powers. But those days are well behind her. The 34-year-old Australian has been on a steady decline for some time now. Her year-end rankings tell the story of her downturn. In 2010 and 2011, she was No. 6, and she remained among the Top 10 in 2012. But then she slipped to No. 18 in 2013, No. 23 in 2014 and No. 27 in 2015.
After rising slightly to No. 21 the following year, Stosur finished 2017 at No. 41 and currently resides at No. 64 in the world. Wozniacki, meanwhile, ended 2017 at No. 3 in the world after concluding the two previous years not far inside the Top 20. She commenced her 2018 campaign with the most rewarding fortnight of her life, capturing her first major title at long last, overcoming Simona Halep in a bruising showdown at the Australian Open to win the season’s first Grand Slam championship. Considering that Wozniacki had been ranked No. 1 in the world at the end of both 2010 and 2011 yet had never fully validated that status, her Melbourne triumph was celebrated unabashedly by her many ardent admirers.
And yet, it has been understandably difficult for the 28-year-old Dane to find as much motivation ever since her emotionally satisfying victory in Australia. She is the second-ranked player in the world and a threat to win any tournament she enters, but there has been a growing feeling among the cognoscenti that Wozniacki’s sense of urgency is not where she wants it to be. Realizing a lifelong dream makes carrying on ruthlessly everywhere she competes a tougher thing to do.
Looking at all of these factors, Wozniacki-Stosur was an appealing matchup to more than a few observers at the Open today. From the standpoint of Stosur, it started rather well. The Australian released back-to-back aces on the first two points, sending both deliveries down the T at 116 and 115 M.P.H. respectively. She held at 30 for 1-0. Wozniacki answered with a love hold for 1-1 and then broke for 2-1 at 30, taking the last two points from 30-30 on an errant bounce smash and a miss-hit forehand wide. Wozniacki held for 3-1, saving a break point in that game with a trademark forehand crosscourt passing shot as Stosur left the court open after approaching inside-in off the forehand.
Yet Stosur struck back forcefully, serving two more aces on her way to a hold at 15 in the fifth game, and then breaking Wozniacki for 3-3 as the No. 2 seed double faulted at 30-30 and pressed on a backhand down the line at 30-40. Stosur was back in business, but not for long. She inexplicably double faulted three times in the seventh game and was broken at 30. Wozniacki took the next two games comfortably. She captured 12-of-17 points to seal the set 6-3. The sturdiness of the Danish competitor was fundamentally what separated the two players.
On they went to the second set, and Wozniacki was down 0-30 in the opening game. She proceeded to sweep four points in a row to hold, but Stosur reached 1-1 on her third game point. After Wozniacki held easily with stellar defense and solid execution from the back of the court, Stosur saved three break points in a strenuous six deuce game to make it to 2-2, displaying deep determination in the process and sending a message to Wozniacki that this match was not over.
But Wozniacki was unflappable. She held at 15 for 3-2 and broke at the cost of only one point for 4-2. After being stretched to deuce in the following game, she moved on to 5-2. Now Stosur was spent. She opened and closed the final game with double faults. Wozniacki broke at love to complete a 6-3, 6-2 triumph. Across the two sets, Wozniacki was rock solid. She committed only 12 unforced errors, 22 less than her adversary. All through the battle, Stosur was drawn into forehand errors on the stretch. Strategically, Wozniacki played this match precisely on her own terms, picking apart Stosur methodically, breaking down the Stosur forehand comprehensively, mixing up her shots skillfully, and changing trajectories intelligently.
All told, it was a fine performance from Wozniacki and a disappointing one from Stosur. The Stosur who showed up for this confrontation pales in comparison to the Stosur who took the title in 2011. Back then her second serve was decidedly better than it is these days. Her kick delivery was more severe; at that time, her second delivery was arguably the best in women’s tennis, and her first serve was more reliable. Moreover, her forehand was a much more consistent and lethal shot than it is now.
That is why the gap was so wide between Wozniacki and Stosur in this first-round encounter. Over the course of their careers, Wozniacki had only a 7-5 career lead over Stosur as they walked on court. Yet that history had little bearing on the outcome of this match.
Afterwards, Wozniacki said, “I mean, she came out and served a bunch of aces to start off with, and I said, ‘Okay, this is going to be a long day, a day where I really have to focus. I think what I was happier with is I think I got broken once but I held serve the whole match. You know, I was just staying focused. It’s a match where you can’t just give up easy points because with her serve it can turn into a long day. I was happy with just staying focused, trying to stay cool and I got a lot of returns back when I needed to. It was very hot conditions for sure.”
Can Wozniacki take this victory and turn it into something of lasting value? It is too early to answer that question, but this much is certain: the US Open fans have always enjoyed watching Caroline Wozniacki practice her craft, and if she does make a run deep into this draw and perhaps puts herself in a position to win the tournament, they would be more than happy to see her succeed.