At one point during this year’s US Open, it looked as though the women’s draw might implode completely. A Grand Slam benefits from an early upset or two – it brings new names to the fore and gives us fresh storylines to ponder. But when the players who made headlines throughout the year – Kvitova, Radwanska, Bouchard, Halep, Ivanovic – all tumbled before the middle weekend, the shortlist of title contenders had to be shredded. Many worried that hopes for a compelling, evenly matched final would have to be discarded too.
Thankfully, the stage is set for just that. Amid the carnage, the two women with the most hard courts wins this summer have made it to the US Open showpiece. Both got there by doing what they do best: Serena Williams bossing from the baseline and dominating on serve, Caroline Wozniacki running and defending like a soldier on the front line. Check out the Williams vs Wozniacki Head to Head.
Friday’s semi-finals perfectly showcased these respective strengths. Serena knew that she had no business losing to Ekaterina Makarova, and she entered Arthur Ashe stadium in executive mode. She won 77% of first serve points, broke the Russian five times, and hit 24 winners on the way to a routine 6-1, 6-3 victory. Makarova has had a brilliant tournament and fully merited her place in the final four, but really, what could she do to stop an in-form Serena who has lost only three Grand Slam semi-finals in her entire career? This was a mis-match from the beginning, and the outcome was never in doubt.
The day’s earlier match was much more competitive – and dramatic. Wozniacki was stretched and tested by Shuai Peng, and looked to be in serious danger when the Chinese served for the first set at 6-5. Yet a steely Caro broke back, and took charge of the ensuring tie-break. The second set featured more captivating rallies that saw both women use every area of the court; it too seemed to be headed for a close finish. But then the unforgiving New York sun took its toll on the underdog. Peng began cramping, was taken out for treatment, and returned only to collapse altogether. The distressing scenes of her retirement and wheelchair exit accentuated the impeccable fitness levels of her opponent. Wozniacki came into the match suffering from a heavy cold and required medication during the changeovers, but she was the last one standing after two hours of draining battle.
We shouldn’t focus too much on the uneven head-to-head between Serena and Wozniacki. The American might have won eight of the pair’s nine previous matches, but the majority of those encounters have been compelling and fun to watch. Serena’s power and aggressive instincts are countered by Wozniacki’s almost preternatural willingness to chase down every ball. When both are playing at the peak of their powers, the rallies are plentiful and entertaining.
The question is: will they both be at the peak of their powers on Sunday? Serena looks the safer bet to bring her A game. She has wasted little time on court during her first six matches and is ultra-motivated to atone for a disappointing Grand Slam season. She is also chasing history: triumph would see her tie Martina Navratilova and Chris Evert with 18 major trophies.
A cloud of doubt hangs over Wozniacki. Even if she fully recovers from her cold, might she be aversely affected by the magnitude of the occasion? She’ll be playing in her most important match in five years against the best player in the world – it would be astonishing if she didn’t feel any butterflies.
The only blowout in the friends’ playing history came at the London Olympics. On that occasion, Serena was untouchable: she hit the sweet spot with almost every serve, teed off on Wozniacki’s deliveries and treated her looping, short forehands with disdain. Few would wish for a repeat of such a spectacle.
Let’s hope instead for a bout similar to their quarter-final at the Rogers Cup last month. Serena was a notch below top form then, while Wozniacki was playing as well as she had done in two years. The result was a fluctuating and memorable two-and-three-quarter-hour marathon that ended with elated fans on their feet and the players embracing warmly at the net.
Wozniacki winning her maiden Grand Slam title after countless struggles would make for one of tennis’ most heartwarming stories, and against any other player she’d have a genuine shot at realising the dream. Unfortunately for her, she is facing an all-time great with a staggering pedigree on the big stage. Besides sister Venus, only lights-out performances from Maria Sharapova (Wimbledon 2004) and Sam Stosur (US Open 2011) have stopped Serena in Grand Slam finals. Wozniacki has been playing with more assertiveness recently, but she still lacks the bullishness and hard-hitting game required to join that select list.
Prediction: Serena in straight sets.