WHAT HAPPENED: In a highly anticipated matchup of two former No. 1s, No. 10 seed Caroline Wozniacki marched into the US Open quarterfinals on Sunday with a 6-4, 2-6, 6-2 upset of No. 5 Maria Sharapova in Arthur Ashe Stadium.
The 2009 runner-up is into the Elite Eight for the third time and will next face Italy’s Sara Errani, a 6-3, 2-6, 6-0 winner over Mirjana Lucic-Baroni. It marks Wozniacki's first major quarterfinal since the 2012 Australian Open.
“It means so much to me,” said Wozniacki, who was appearing in the fourth round at the US Open for the first time since her semifinal run of 2011. “It’s been a bit up and down for me this year. To win today against a champion like Maria is an unbelievable feeling.”
These two have a history. Though Sharapova had claimed their last three encounters, and five of seven head-to-heads overall tracing back to 2008, a straight-sets round-of-16 loss to the Dane at the 2010 US Open still stung. You knew coming in that, given their dogged determination, that this would be a physical test for both players, especially in the soaring humidity of Day 7.
Long known for her tenacious retrieving prowess, Wozniacki came into the tournament with some strong summer hard-court preparation and even seemed to have added a few new wrinkles to her game (think the occasional net rush). It showed early as the ponytailed Dane, 24, jumped out to a quick 3-0 edge against her 27-year-old opponent, who would register 21 first-set errors. Serving to stay in the set at 4-5, 15-40, Sharapova sent a backhand into the net for the break, one of four Wozniacki would convert on the day.
But Wozniacki, who’s been training for November’s New York City Marathon, would need all her leg strength and more against Sharapova, who turned the tide with a pair of service breaks to force a third set, familiar territory for the No. 6-ranked Russian. She had gone to three sets in seven of her last 10 matches coming into the contest, and was a tour-best 17-6 in those situations on the year.
With the WTA’s extreme heat policy in effect, the players were given a 10-minute break prior to the start of the third set. Sharapova apparently overstayed her welcome, because when she returned to the court she was warned of a near infraction by Grand Slam Supervisor Donna Kelso.
With a triple break-point opportunity in the fourth game of the final set, Wozniacki flashed her defensive skills to surge ahead 3-1. She tirelessly ran corner to corner to chase down her opponent’s offerings, then fist-pumped the conversion when a backhand volley from Sharapova dropped short into the net. Four games later, with Sharapova serving to stay in the match at 2-5, 15-40, the Dane crushed a backhand winner down the line to close out the match in two hours, 37 minutes.
Sharapova’s trademark brand of high-risk, high-reward tennis resulted in 39 winners and 43 unforced errors. Wozniacki, meanwhile, finished with 22 winners and 17 unforced errors.
“It’s amazing,” said Wozniacki. “I can’t describe the feeling being down here and playing on front of this crowd.”
WHAT IT MEANS: Though she was holed up in a Manhattan hotel room just across the East River from the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center, this time last year Maria Sharapova couldn’t have been further away from the US Open. Shoulder issues had crept in again, and the Russian was forced to withdraw from the tournament, only the second time she would miss the year-end Slam in her 11 years on the tour.
Looking for answers, she underwent a battery of tests, had a few MRIs and treatments. She received a variety of opinions from a variety of doctors. Suddenly, her tennis future was in question. But the five-time Slam champ was no stranger to adversity. She had gone under the knife and missed nine months in 2008-09 due to shoulder issues. But after falling as low as No. 126, she reinvented herself, overhauled her serve and worked her way back to the top of the sport. When she won her second Roland Garros title in June, she proved once again that you can’t keep a player of her caliber down.
“It's so easy to forget that you get yourself back in such a great position in your career where you win a Grand Slam, you're playing the US Open, which you missed last year,” said the No. 6-ranked baseliner. “I have never really had an easy journey to this step of where I am today. From my days in Russia to even now, we always go through challenges and adversity. I think we’re still not sitting here today saying I’m the strongest person physically or mentally, because I always want to improve.”
The loss to Wozniacki on Sunday will surely hurt. The Russian never likes to lose, especially on the big stage. But given her ability to overcome obstacles in the past, it may be a mere speed bump.
QUESTION: Wozniacki spent 67 weeks at No. 1 despite never having won a Grand Slam. Will she finally break through in 2014?