A return to competition in an individual sport has a brutal dimension. At least team sports players rarely play every minute of the game and have colleagues who can share the twin burdens of pressure and execution.

But in tennis, you must take every shot, wire to wire. As Martina Navratilova has said, match play after a long layoff can cause your head to literally throb, all part of the anguish that accompanies dealing with a skilled opponent and regaining coordination with everything from the feet that propel movement to the hips, shoulders and hands that generate racquet head speed. As Neil Young sang, “There’s more to the picture than meets the eye.”

Young sang those lyrics on an album with an apt title for today’s third round US Open match between two players on the comeback trail, Caroline Wozniacki and Jennifer Brady: Rust Never Sleeps. Wozniacki took two minutes short of two hours to win it, 4-6, 6-3, 6-1. But along the way, plenty surfaced that revealed how much sharper each will need to become if she is to vie week-in and week-out with the game’s best.

Prior to the match, it hardly mattered that Wozniacki was ranked 623 and Brady 433. After all, each had once been among the elite, Wozniacki number one in the world and the 2018 Australian Open champion, Brady a US Open semifinalist in 2020 and Australian Open finalist the next year. Wozniacki retired in January ’20, while Brady missed two years of competition due to knee and foot injuries. But this summer, each had returned, the 33-year-old Wozniacki for a pressure-free helping of more competition, Brady keen to resume a career interrupted mid-ascent.

Wozniacki is now 41-13 lifetime at Flushing Meadows.

Wozniacki is now 41-13 lifetime at Flushing Meadows.


The style contrast of this first-time meeting carried great appeal. Brady, five years younger than Wozniacki, owned the kind of powerful arsenal that had frequently derailed the Dane at the late stages of majors. The Brady game is textbook contemporary: a great serve, often followed by a crushing forehand. Wozniacki had reached the top with the assets of baseball teams from a bygone era: speed and defense. Call it return plus six.

Through the early stages of this match, the headache Navratilova cited was apparent. Neither could find her best form. Service breaks and break points came and went. As anticipated, many of those moments were in the more aggressive Brady’s control. With Wozniacki serving at 2-3, Brady surrendered two ads with badly misfired shots. On her own serve, Brady fought her way out of a 3-3, 15-40 deficit with a fine forehand volley and a terrific kick serve.

Then came the first major plot twist. Brady started to steamroll. To some degree, this was the result of her powerful forehand dictating the tempo of many a rally. But at another, Wozniacki was sloppy. The forehand had always been her weaker side, at its worst moments neither shaped nor penetrating. Throughout the first set and into the second, it frequently flew long. From 4-all in the first, Brady won 19 of 23 points to go up 6-4, 2-0, 40-15.

Now came Brady’s turn to lose focus. At 2-0, 40-30, she double-faulted. Wozniacki broke and held. Swiftly as Brady had taken control of the match, all rapidly went in the opposite direction, her footwork ill-informed, the swings far too late and muscled. “I mean, I would have loved to keep the intensity up,” said Brady. “Over time, I just felt the legs were getting a little bit heavier. She was starting to break me down there, just making a few extra balls. My ball just didn't have the same heaviness or impact that it did in the first set.”

An exceptional ability to sense physical and mental fatigue in her opponents had long been Wozniacki’s superpower. Aware that she could now settle into a tranquil groove without fear of being hit off the court, Wozniacki settled into her customary strategy of movement and consistency.


Once Brady had been unable to snap open the match, Wozniacki’s racquet transformed into something akin to a tweezer, carefully extracting one error after another from an opponent increasingly unable to effectively impose herself. “Slowly I started chipping away, it started going my way,” said Wozniacki. “I felt like the momentum kind of shifted a little bit, then I could see she was starting to get a little tired as well when we had the long rallies. I was excited for that.”

As Wozniacki captured the second set, it was nearly impossible to imagine her losing the third. Holding her foot on the gas pedal quite competently versus the weary Brady, Wozniacki handily took the decider. “I think I felt physically great,” she said. “It's my first three-set match in the comeback. I feel great about it. My body feels perfect, knock on wood. That's a big step for me, as well, because you never know how your body's going to react after so many years away from the game, then playing a long match. I felt good? I felt like I could be out there for another few sets, if I had to.”

Wozniacki is now in the fourth round of the US Open for the seventh time in her career. That last happened in 2016, well before she got married and had two children. It was also before Wozniacki spent time as an analyst for Tennis Channel and ESPN, a series of gigs she praised following today’s match. “It's much easier to see everything from the outside than it is when you're on the court,” said Wozniacki. “I think I learned a lot from that, as well. I think I'm seeing things pretty clearly.”

This year’s run also means Wozniacki has advanced to the round of 16 at the US Open in her teens, 20s and 30s. “I think that's pretty cool,” she said. “I think if you'd asked me as a kid growing up and said that I would have done this, I would have said, No way. To have the longevity, to be able to come back after having children, also to get far into this tournament so young, it's just something I'm very proud of and something that I don't take for granted.” Of course, it’s hard to imagine someone who’s success has been so heavily built on fitness and tenacity taking any kind of victory for granted.