Ms. October: In fall, Caroline Wozniacki is the last woman standing

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Stories of the Open Era: Tennis in Asia

“Has Caro always had that serve?”

That’s what I found myself asking more than once this weekend, as I watched Caroline Wozniacki walk away with her biggest win in nearly 10 months, at the WTA’s fourth and final Premier Mandatory event in Beijing. Over the course of a week, it seemed, Wozniacki transformed her serve from a way to start a point, into a way to win one, and the rest of her game followed suit.

The transformation was sudden, but it wasn’t the first time Caro has made it. Last October, I remember asking a similar set of questions—“Has she always had this serve? This forehand? This backhand? Has she always been this aggressive?”—while watching her roll to the most important win of her career up to that point, at the WTA Finals in Singapore. There’s something about October that works for Wozniacki. Coming into the China Open, she hadn’t won two straight matches at any event since June, which was when she won her last title, in Eastbourne.

“I didn’t feel great going into the tournament, to be honest,” said Wozniacki, who didn’t drop a set in her six matches in Beijing. “But I think after kind of the second match I started feeling like I was hitting the ball well and I could see the ball really well. Then I started believing that I’m really hitting my form, playing myself into shape.”

Her 6-3, 6-3 win over Anastasija Sevastova in the final was, in many ways, vintage Wozniacki. While Sevastova went was up and down, Wozniacki stubbornly kept to her even keel. She won because she was steadier, but she was also won from the front of the court, closing out points with smashes and putaway volleys. She won with her underrated athleticism, chasing down Sevastova’s viciously well-measured drop shots and flicking them for winners.

“I just at one point was like, ‘You know what, just try to make her move, try and do something, keep the margins slightly bigger, then wait for your chance.’”

As that statement suggests, Wozniacki has a productive way of not asking herself to do much. She lets her opponents take the risks and come up with the memorable winners, but she knows those winners will also come with errors—simply making her opponent move is often all she needs to do to guarantee that the errors will outweigh the winners.

No matter how many great shots an opponent hits against her, Wozniacki typically looks as if she doesn’t believe she can do it again. She never lets herself look defeated or pessimistic, never hangs her head or slumps her shoulders. Wozniacki is always signaling to her opponent, “I’ll be here, waiting for your next miss, so you better be perfect.” That’s a tough mindset to combat.

“This week, it was just kind of like slow and steady wins the race,” Wozniacki said. “Every day just kind of getting better and better.”

“Slow and steady wins the race” is an apt description not just for this past week, but for the 28-year-old Wozniacki’s year, and her career. Despite her frenetic schedule, she’s typically one of the last women standing at the end of the season—her multiple titles at late-year events in Tokyo, Hong Kong, Seoul, Moscow, Kuala Lumpur, and now Beijing attest to her remarkable staying power.

The flipside of that reliability is that Wozniacki struggles to lift her game at more important events, or peak for the majors, the way other players do. This was her 30th career title, but only one, the 2018 Australian Open, has come at a Slam. At those tournaments, opponents who may be erratic elsewhere tend find a way to hit enough winners to beat her. The loss that sent her into a tailspin this year came at the hands of Ekaterina Makarova in the second round at Wimbledon. Wozniacki had beaten Makarova in their first seven meetings, none of which came at a major. Now she has lost two straight to her, both at Slams.

Wozniacki’s Beijing run finally ended that half-season slump. Last year, her excellent form at the WTA Finals carried over in Melbourne. Might we see a repeat of those back-to-back wins? Simona Halep is ailing, Serena Williams is sidelined, and the court in Singapore, which tends to play low and slow, is still to Wozniacki’s liking. Don’t be surprised if the tortoise passes all of the hares at the finish line, and Wozniacki is the last woman standing again.

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