Wozniacki is an ascending star -- who keeps shining brighter

by | The Sports Xchange/CBSSports.com
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NEW YORK -- She's not there yet, not holding the winner's trophy. There still are three more matches. "I feel like everything is possible," said Caroline Wozniacki. She is in full flight, an athlete in ascendancy, for whom nothing seems impossible.

This time the opponent wasn't one of those wild cards like Chelsey Gullickson or one of those players from the depths like Kai-Chen Chang, No. 84 in the rankings, or Yung-Jan Chan, No. 77, that Wozniacki was certain to beat.

It was Maria Sharapova, a three-time Grand Slam champion who was playing Wozniacki on Monday, on Labor Day. It was another tall blonde who pounds a tennis ball as if it were a punching bag.

It was an opponent who would in the fourth round of the U.S. Open provide tennis and Wozniacki herself an honest evaluation of where she stands in the game.

She stands very high indeed.

Wozniacki, the Wonderful Wizard of Woz, took apart Sharapova, 6-3, 6-4. Well, Sharapova took Sharapova apart. She made 36 unforced errors. She had nine double faults. The Woz had Sharapova off balance, out of rhythm. The Woz had Sharapova frustrated.

She's a human backboard, Wozniacki. Whatever Sharapova hit, wherever Sharapova hit, onto the middle of the court, into the corners, powerful shots, the ball came ripping back at her.

"She's retrieving a lot of balls," Sharapova said. "You know she served really well today. She used the wind really well, especially playing against the wind. She was able to use many things to her advantage. I wasn't able to capitalize."

Only two more matches for Wozniacki, the No. 1 seed, to make it to the women's final a second consecutive year. The first will be against Dominika Cibulkova of Slovenia. She's 5-feet-3. Wozniacki is 5-feet-10. And on a roll. That's not a match. That's a mismatch.

"She's at the top of her game," Sharapova said of The Woz, who has won 19 of 20 matches since a loss at Wimbledon and who has won the last three tournaments since the beginning of August.

"Obviously, she's playing the best tennis of her career. ... This is a great opportunity for her."

Wozniacki, 20, born of Polish parents in Odense, Denmark, is agile and strong and beautiful, all of which add to both her game and her image. She lost in last year's final to Kim Clijsters, but 12 months have made a difference.

"I've improved a lot," said Wozniacki, "not only physically, but I believe in myself more. I believe I can do it. I also think I mix up my game a little more than last year."

She mixed up Sharapova, who kept trying to hit winners and instead kept hitting balls into the net or beyond the lines.

Maria wasn't awful. Anything but. She helped produce wonderful tennis, enticing tennis. Together, they put on an entertaining match. One rally was 29 balls. Whap. Whap. Whap. It's just that eventually Wozniacki would win the points. Or Sharapova would lose them.

"Against someone that's playing really well," said Sharapova, "playing with a lot of confidence, it's important to take those chances that you have, the very few that come your way."

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Clijsters and Venus Williams, who are in line to meet in one semifinal, are on the other side of the draw. They're in Wozniacki's class. They've won Slams, which the Woz has not. But Wozniacki keeps getting better. She lost seven games Monday but still has dropped a total of only 10 games in four matches this Open.

"I made her do those errors," Wozniacki said of Sharapova in English not quite as effective as her game. "I felt like I was playing well out there. ... I was going out there and I knew I could win."

That's the mentality of a successful athlete. No doubts. No worries. You might call it a zone, that indescribable area when anything and everything works. Or you might call it as the perfect blend of mind and body, knowing what you wish to do and then capably doing it.

Darren Cahill, a coach and television commentator, labels it the X factor. "She hates to lose," was the Cahill analysis.

Her father was a pro soccer star. Her mother was a member of a national volleyball team. She learned well. Wozniacki is a persistent young lady.

"I never give up," was her self-analysis. "Doesn't matter what the score is. And I think that makes me tough to beat as well. I think that's one of my strengths."

Sharapova changed her tactics at times, going to the net, and said afterward, "I could have been more aggressive. I didn't do it enough, and that allowed her to stand on the baseline and keep retrieving balls. That's what she does best. When she had the opportunity to step in, she took it and went for her shots. Then I was on the defense."

Then, in truth, Sharapova was on the run.

"For me," agreed Wozniacki, "it was important to keep as many balls in the court but still try to move her around and try to dictate as well."

It worked. Brilliantly.

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