Doha: Wozniacki d. Barthel

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The 7-6 (6), 6-3 scoreline of Caroline Wozniacki’s win over Mona Barthel today sounds fairly routine, but underneath the numbers this match was as turbulent and unpredictable as the wind that swirled around the second show court in Doha. There were comebacks and chokes, easy winners and ugly misses, bad calls and pointless arguments. There was even a father who joined in the action from the stands.

It was a contest between one player, Barthel, who goes for broke, and another, Wozniacki, who goes for almost nothing. Midway through the first set, I began to think that if you could put the best aspects of these two together—Barthel’s casual power with Wozniacki’s cussed consistency—you’d have a heckuva player. The advantage between them swung back and forth every few games, but the way the rallies played out was just the way you would have expected. The points, for better and mostly, in the end, for worse, were on Barthel’s racquet.

Two games can serve as a microcosm. With Wozniacki serving at 2-1 in the first set, and again 3-1 in the second, Barthel earned multiple break points. To get to them, she blistered forehand returns past Wozniacki; then, with a chance to break and a second serve staring her in the face and crying “Hit me!” she missed. Each time Wozniacki dug her way out to hold, and then broke serve herself in the following game. If you’re looking for one thing to explain this match, Barthel’s inability to convert break points will do. She was 3 for 16.

Barthel, a young German talent, had been playing lights-out tennis recently. She won in Paris two weeks ago, and rolled past her higher-ranked countrywoman Angelique Kerber in her opening round here. But a windy day, and an opponent as steady as Wozniacki, brought her back to earth. Like her other fellow countrywomen, Sabine Lisicki and Julia Georges, Barthel is terminally hit and miss. She was just as inconsistent today when she tried to rally as she was when she went for everything. There’s a lot to like in her game; she has a good first serve, a nice crosscourt forehand pass, and, when she was loose, she made hitting winners past Wozniacki from the baseline look like child’s play. But her height can work against her on low balls and wide balls, and Wozniacki, who mostly stayed away from Barthel's lethal backhand, gave her just enough of both. At 22, the mellow Mona remains a raw talent.

She was certainly a contrast, in demeanor as much as style, with Wozniacki. Caroline, who had won their previous two meetings in straight sets and didn’t want that record to change, was as feisty as ever today. She argued every close call that went against her. She threw her hands in the air as she walked toward the chair umpire. She bashed the net with her racquet. In the second set, her even feistier father, Piotr, got in on the action by arguing her case with the ump from the stands. He was finally asked to leave by security, but he wouldn't budge. 

Still, I thought the most revealing thing that his daughter said today was something she muttered to herself. Down 3-4 in the first-set tiebreaker, and having just lost four straight points, Wozniacki sent an easy backhand return long. It was an uncharacteristic miss, and she told herself, “Stupid mistake!” It was as if, despite being on the verge of blowing the first set, Wozniacki knew that if she could just keep the ball in play, she would still be in control. Other players dictate with power; she dictates with consistency. And she was right. She stopped missing while Barthel started again, and Wozniacki came back to win the breaker 8-6.

Next up is a player, and sometime friend and rival, Agnieszka Radwanska, who will try to control things with consistency herself. We’ll see who the boss of that one is.

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