The Defensive Athlete

by: Steve Tignor | September 06, 2010

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Cw On the way into Ashe Stadium this afternoon, Caroline Wozniacki was asked by a television interviewer what she would need to do to turn the tables on her opponent, Maria Sharapova, who had beaten her in each of their first two matches. Wozniacki said, with a confidence so calmly sunny that it bordered on the defiant, “I’m going to do what I do best.”

What she does best, of course, is hit the ball in the court, again and again. This is the only truly essential element of the sport; you can win a lot of matches without doing anything more. Hence the sunny confidence in Wozniacki’s voice. But as effective as it is, hitting the ball in the court again and again is not a widely admired skill. It’s hard to admire something so cautious, so dogged, so necessary—being a retriever is for the dogs. Hence this Great Dane’s defiance.

You might have thought that being thrown in as the No. 1 seed after Serena Williams’s withdrawal would have rattled Wozniacki. She must have seen what happened to the last woman who backed into a No. 1 spot, Dinara Safina. The Russian was badgered for months about the legitimacy of her top ranking in 2009, and has since dropped out of the Top 40. The same questions have trailed Wozniacki through this tournament. Is she a serious No. 1? Is she a glorified pusher? Does anyone in this country know who she is? Thus far, though, Wozniacki has been motivated rather than cowed by the added pressure and scrutiny. She lost just a handful of games in her first three matches, and knocked off a former Open champ today in fairly routine fashion 6-3, 6-4 to reach the quarterfinals. From a distance, Wozniacki’s hit-the-ball-in-the-court game looks dull, and, frankly, it can be. But when you see her up close, you see that a lot of squeaky-sneakered grit goes into her version of the hit-the-ball-back game. Wozniacki may be defensive, but she’s a defensive athlete.

She’s also an intelligent one. After watching Wozniacki hit every ball safely inside the lines and safely over the net for two games, I began to recall an earlier generation’s best defensive athlete, Arantxa Sanchez-Vicario. Like the Spaniard, Wozniacki has workmanlike (workwomanlike?) strokes that she rarely takes on the rise or uses creatively—Wozniacki just keeps circling under the ball on each side, topspinning it crosscourt a little beyond the service line. Like Sanchez-Vicario, she’s patient and irritatingly tenacious. Like Sanchez-Vicario, Wozniacki knows that a “comfort zone” is called that for a reason. Why go where you’re uncomfortable? Why take the ball on the rise? Why hit it close to the lines or low over the net when it isn’t necessary? And like Sanchez-Vicario with Steffi Graf, Wozniacki, in her patient and tenacious way, made a tall, blond, hard-hitting Grand Slam champ go haywire today. Wozniacki hit half as many winners, but committed one-third as many unforced errors. That’s a stark recipe, but a recipe for success.

Where does this leave the tall, blond, former Grand Slam champ? Sharapova appeared to be in good form to start, but after double-faulting to go down 1-3, trouble slowly spread to every part of her game. She pulled off her forehand and sent it into the tape. She overhit her returns and sailed ground strokes long on break points. Even her usually brilliant backhand failed her in the second set.

Asked in her presser if she had problems finding her range on her serve, Sharapova said quietly, “You could say that about so many different areas in the game today. I played two good points and then made two return errors. I didn’t really give her a chance to play. I felt like I was just giving it out there. I think [my game] just needs to be more stable and not so up and down.”

Sharapova, who has been mostly healthy this year, has now had enough time to find that stability. She’s 23, which is hardly over the hill in the WTA these days. But there’s an inconsistency, an unfinished quality, to Sharapova’s game that will be hard to cure. When she won big in the past, she won with fierce and uncompromising determination, and an overwhelming first-strike game—with high-risk winners. Unlike Serena Williams, she was never speedy or well-rounded or athletic enough to fall back on anything else. High-risk winners aren’t easy things to call up, and there are a lot of other women who play with her kind of ferocity now. While she has lost only to top players—Henin, Serena, Wozniacki—at the majors in 2010, she never really threatened to win any of those matches. You can no longer say, “when Sharapova gets back to her best form . . .” This, right now, is her form, and it’s not good enough to win a major.

As we thought, Sharapova was beaten by a retriever. But when Wozniacki needed to serve it out, when she needed to show a little more, she had it. At 30-15, she made her way to the net for the first time, and won the point. At 40-15, match point, she wasted no time in knocking off a forehand winner up the line. It wasn’t her first, either. While she never played risky or creative tennis, Wozniacki moved Sharapova when she needed to, passed her when she had the chance, held steady when she was down break points, and even rifled a few backhands past her. Most subtly, at 3-3 in the second, up 15-30 on Sharapova’s serve, Wozniacki took a backhand a little earlier than normal and hit it with a little more depth and pace than normal. It was enough to throw Sharapova off and draw a winner. Wozniacki broke serve on the next point.

It wasn’t an artistic performance by any means—I’ll never love Wozniacki’s circular, supersafe forehand, in particular. But it wasn’t a snooze, either. It took me many years to begin to appreciate the competitive intelligence that was hidden just beneath the dull veneer of Arantxa Sanchez-Vicario’s game. I got an early start on Wozniacki’s today. 

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