The vultures have been circling. They—we?—have been waiting for more than a week to see how top-seeded and paper No. 1 Caroline Wozniacki would measure up in the first test of her Grand Slam mettle in 2011. The test came today, and for a set and a half we were pretty sure she was going to fail it.
The talk amongst myself and the other journalists who were in Laver Arena watching Wozniacki play Francesca Schiavone was that the Italian was teaching her junior a lesson in placement, tactics, variety. By the time Schiavone was up 3-1 it looked like it was going to be a comprehensive win, one that Wozniacki wouldn’t forget for a while.
Schiavone had all the angles covered. She drew Wozniacki up with short slices and passed her. She hit looping topspin that forced her to reach up and hit from outside of her strike zone, which is never an easy thing for a dyed-in-the-wool, two-handed backhand-sporting baseliner like Wozniacki to do. Schiavone had her off-balance and handcuffed, unsure of where the ball was headed next and what kind of spin and pace it was going to have on it. All signs pointed to a victory for the traditionalist forces of the one-handed backhand and the net-rusher, for the supporters of variety and flair and all-court play.
“I think the players feel the pressure,” Schiavone said, “because I change everything on the court, the speed and the angle.”
Then something unexpected happened. It was Wozniacki, Wozniacki with the reputation as a charisma-starved pusher, who made a change. She started to come forward. At first it looked like nothing more than a bluff. She came in on the wrong shots and was passed by Schiavone. A second break of serve loomed. But Wozniacki kept pushing. She hung on when she needed to and held. In the next game, Schiavone imploded with four straight horrid errors.
“I tried to take one ball at a time. I said, ‘If you get the chance, take it now, or it’s going to be too late,'” Wozniacki said, not helping her cause in the charisma sweepstakes. “I had to step in more. I stood a little bit closer and made her run.”
“She started to push much more,” Schiavone said of Wozniacki in the second set—Schiavone meant “push forward,” not push in the “just get the ball back” sense. The Italian also said she wasn’t tired in the second from her marathon two days earlier with Svetlana Kuznetsova, though a little weariness crept in near the end of the third.
From 3-3, Wozniacki had new life, and she made the most of it. She was the one moving her opponent and doing the things she does well, like coming up with a miraculous crosscourt pass that demoralized Schiavone at 4-3.
“She was playing her tennis,” Schiavone said.
So the traditionalist forces were rolled back in the end. More important, Wozniacki showed that she can recognize the need to change the dynamic of a match, and that she can implement that change. It’s unlikely that Wozniacki will ever be a versatile player, but she has proven herself to be resourceful in the past, and she proved it again today.
Does she have the resources to beat Li Na, the woman who sent her home here last year, and who is the popular sleeper pick to go all the way in 2011? The vultures will back in their/our spots in the media section to find out.
Let me finish with a word on Francesca Schiavone, who once again put a Slam on her back and carried it for a few days. She was brilliant in much of her defeat, but she gave it away in a matter of minutes. Afterwards she was as cheerfully philosophical as she usually is. She smiled and winked at reporters as she spoke. She paused for thought between answers, then kept them admirably and wittily brief.
Q: “Are you proud of what you’ve achieved here over the last 10 days?”
FS: “[I’m] a little bit disappointed. It’s normal. I think I am a tennis player, and I want always to have something more.”
Q: “Do you think they should consider having tiebreakers in the third set at the Australian Open?
FS: “No, no, I think it was a great match. We are strong, the woman are strong.”
Schiavone isn’t afraid to embrace and enjoy her success—there’s no false modesty to her, but no undue pride either. She’s had many years in the pro tour wilderness, so she's going to savor every moment in the limelight.
Told she was getting a reputation as a fan favorite, Schiavone said, “I’m happy for this. I wait for a lifetime, so now I take. Last night I was walking and they say, ‘Francesca, you give me a lot of emotions. Thank you, I hope you win tomorrow.’ I think [hearing this] is something fantastic inside of me or another player.”
Q: ‘This is the highest ranking ever for an Italian woman. How proud are you of that?”
FS: “A lot.”
Told she was No. 4 in the world, she let out a grunt of happiness. Then she was asked if her next goal was to be No. 3 or No. 1.
“Step by step, I never fly, so one step. I have 10 years more.”
Schiavone summed up her feelings about today’s loss this way. “It hurt, but at the same time, it’s good, because I don’t die tomorrow. I will have another chance."
Then she put her both hands, crossed her fingers, and flashed a wide smile: “I hope.”
We hope, too.