Caroline Wozniacki's talent shines in career-saving win vs. Yastremska

Caroline Wozniacki's talent shines in career-saving win vs. Yastremska

In the first set, Wozniacki trailed 1-5 before running off six consecutive games. In the second set, Wozniacki needed six match points to finally subdue Yastremska.

MELBOURNE—The Caroline Wozniacki Farewell Tour has been extended, courtesy of the Dane’s 7-5, 7-5 victory over 23rd-seeded Dayana Yastremska. Inside a packed and, eventually, raucous Margaret Court Arena, the 29-year-old Wozniacki took two hours and two minutes to earn her 597th career match win—and, more importantly, delay her 256th defeat.

It had been quintessential Wozniacki, her talent once again shining through. Wait a second—talent? Isn’t that a term associated with such concepts as elegant technique, ballerina-like movement, vast tactical imagination, one signature shot, or, in the case of the 21-year-old Yastremska, exceptional gross motor skills? 

Wozniacki has none of those assets. Briefly now head back to Melbourne two years ago, to a very early Sunday morning, just past midnight in the Australian Open player’s lounge. Shortly after Billie Jean King had awarded Wozniacki with the champion’s trophy, King waxed on what she’d savored seeing from the 2018 titlist.  Said King, “Persistence is a talent.”

Well, well. Put that in your racquet bag and smoke it.

Today Wozniacki needed an abundant quantity of persistence. Yastremska is a formidable ball-striker, crisp and forceful off both sides. Having beaten Wozniacki last summer in their only prior meeting, as the match got underway, Yastremska was thoroughly in control, snapping up five of the first six games.

On this cloudy day, it was looking even darker for Wozniacki.

“I was just, like, it's coming really fast at me," she said. "She's not making a lot of mistakes. I'm not getting depth on the ball. I was trying to think what to do out there to change that. . . .Let's try and slow it down a little bit and get a little extra time out here.”

Amazingly, from 1-5, 15-all, Wozniacki won 18 of the next 20 points, a comeback fashioned with movement, pluck, a few choice moon-balls and loopers, drives, and, to be sure, ample nerves at the Yastremska end of the court. 

“I got a little bit confused,” said Yastremska. 

In fitting fashion for Wozniacki, she of the nickname “Sunshine,” by late in the first set, the clouds had begun to break up.

Yastremska served at 5-6, and twice Wozniacki held set points. As so often happens in tennis, Yastremska now relaxed and fought off both with forceful groundstrokes and held an ad to take the set into a tiebreaker. Leave it to Wozniacki to stick around just well enough to coax three errors from Yastremska and snatch a set that had seemed unwinnable. It was the first time Yastremska had ever lost a set from that far up. 

Telling numbers from the first set: 23 unforced errors from Yastremska, to just five for Wozniacki. Focus: surely that’s a talent too. 

“I don’t think she changed something,” said Yastremska. “I just started to make mistakes.”

The second set was in many ways a sequel to the first. Here again, Yastremska took charge early, breaking Wozniacki twice to go up 3-0. Briefly, but only briefly, it was easy to sympathize with Yastremska.Her ascent will continue. For a while today, she’d been on the way to notching a signature win. But at all levels, nerves remain tennis’ X factor.  Yastremska became collateral damage to Wozniacki’s toothpick-by-toothpick aggregation of points. 

“It happens,” said Yastremska. “It’s tennis.”    

Of course, given Wozniacki’s arsenal, closing it out was never going to be easy. After Wozniacki held at 4-all, Yastremska summoned the trainer for a lengthy visit. Wozniacki sat down, then walked on to the court to take a few shadow swings and practice serves. 

Said Wozniacki, “obviously she tried to break my rhythm. And at 5-4 I don't think there is anything wrong. She was running just fine. So that's a trick that she's done before, and I knew that it was coming.”

Yastremska disagreed, citing a left hip-leg injury that surfaced last week in Adelaide, followed by right leg pain that happened here in Melbourne.

“I took [the injury timeout] because I felt I needed it,” said Yastremska.

Wozniacki held two match points at 4-5, 15-40 and another in the same game, but on each one, she played the kind of tentative tennis that has also marked her fine career. There followed two more at 5-6, but again, Wozniacki could not finish. On the fifth, Wozniacki struck a penetrating forehand return and then rolled a crosscourt backhand, but declined to come forward to the net, giving Yastremska a chance to push the reset button and eventually win a 19-ball rally. 

Finally, match point number six arrived. And as a Yastremska crosscourt forehand flew long on the seventh shot, and as an elated Wozniacki transitioned from competitor to victor, the Australian Open organizers couldn’t resist the chance to light up the arena with the sounds of that Neil Diamond classic, “Sweet Caroline.” 

“I don't know if I can count how many times I have heard that song. It's a special song for me, especially here because when I won the tournament, they played the ‘Sweet Caroline’ song," she said. "It's a great memory. It means a lot after great wins like this that it gets played. It's a special song for me and the team and my family.”

From the song: “Good times never seemed so good.” Or as The Beatles might have put it, Good Day, Sunshine.