What happens when you have two counter-punchers and no one to throw a punch? You get, if you’re lucky, a match like the scrappy, see-saw three-setter we just saw between Caroline Wozniacki and Agnieszka Radwanska in Istanbul. You get a lot of thinking, and some confusion. You get players trying things they don’t normally try, with results that can swing from the surprisingly brilliant to the head scratching. You get points that are won in all kind of different ways. You get streaks where neither player can hold, and then where neither player come close to breaking. You get leads that seem safe but are suddenly squandered, and sets that develop seemingly with little rhyme or reason. At least in this case, you also get a lot of quality shot-making and a subtle but interesting contrast in styles. But in the end, today, we got the result we expected. By that I don’t mean that the higher-ranked player won. I mean that the player who visibly wanted it more, who wanted not to lose more, ended up not losing.
Against other top players, Wozniacki the wallboard is rarely forced to go on the attack in such a sustained manner. But that’s what she forced herself to do today, and that’s when she had most of her success. At 1-3, 0-30 in the first set, on the verge of being down a double break, Wozniacki won the next point at the net, won the next with a forehand winner, and finished the game with a backhand winner. That last shot, her backhand, would be the difference in the match. Wozniacki hit it for winners down the line; she abused Radwanska’s second serve with it; and she nailed a crucial crosscourt pass with to break in the third set.
As well as Radwanska played much of the time, as well as she drop-shotted and lobbed and changed the ball’s direction and placed her first serve, she didn’t have an answering shot to the Wozniacki backhand. It was a bittersweet defeat for the Pole. She won her first set from Caro in four years, and she rallied from almost certain defeat in both the first and third sets. Her titles this fall have made her a more resourceful competitor, and she’s hitting her forehand with more flat power than ever before—that’s the key to her taking the next step, the key to her hanging with the bigger hitters that still loom above her at the top of the rankings.
Despite all that, and despite her strange letdowns late in the first and third sets and the verbose lectures she received from her coach/father, I never thought Wozniacki believed she would lose this match. She won (5-7, 6-2, 6-4) with her backhand and some determined aggression, yes, but she really won with that little edge of determination that she still has on Radwanska. You could see it in the way she narrowed her eyes as she served, and the way she fought so vocally and desperately to win the final game: Wozniacki, a world No. 1 who has taken a lot of tough defeats this year, wasn't coming out second-best today.