Photos by Bill Harper
If this were a college basketball tournament, we would be in the midst of a UConn-esque women's or UCLA-esque men's dynasty.
Wozniacki started off her magnificent month with a victory on her home turf in Copenhagen (although she currently resides in Monaco). Then, after being upset by 16th-seeded Marion Bartoli in the third round in Cincinnati, she won in Montreal. The Great Dane defeated 8th-seeded Vera Zvonareva of Russia in the finals, which were pushed back to Monday because of inclement weather throughout the tournament, before returning to New Haven, which she calls her favorite stop on the whirlwind WTA Tour.
Indeed, New Haven will always be a special place for Wozniacki because of her 2008 performance. The Danish national with the Polish surname came to Connecticut a relatively unknown teenage prodigy and left for the U.S. Open a week later firmly in the spotlight of women’s professional tennis. (Her Polish parents moved to Odense, Denmark, where Caroline was born, when her father, Piotr, a pro soccer player, was signed by the Odense team.)
Since then, ‘Caro’ has not lost a match in the Elm City.
That set the stage for a semifinal match between the two-time defending champ and Elena Dementieva or Russia, the No. 13-ranked player in the world. Dementieva advanced to Friday’s semifinal by defeating Bartoli in a grueling three-set quarterfinal match that lasted nearly two and a-half hours.
Friday’s match became an instant classic—one that will likely make the rounds on ESPN Classic for years to come.
Never mistake Wozniacki’s model good looks and courteous—indeed sweet—off-court demeanor for on-court passivity. During the 2007 U.S. Open juniors tournament, she was disqualified in a first-round match with Alexandra Panova of Russia when she verbally abused a line judge who she considered to be having a particularly off day. While the two words she was reported to have used cannot be repeated in a public forum, they have gotten many a baseball player tossed.
Throughout the Pilot Pen, Wozniacki clearly was annoyed at many lines calls, and liberally used her right to challenge three calls per set via the electronic line judge. Make no mistake: This young woman is a fiery competitor.
On Friday, she needed every bit of fire she could muster. After looking completely out of sync and dropping the first set to Dimentieva, 1-6—a set in which she required medical attention for her ailing back—Wozniacki recovered to take the second set, 6-3. The third set made this match one for the ages.
The Russian opened the set by breaking the two-time defending champ, then held serve until serving for the match 5-4. Facing elimination for the first time ever in New Haven, Wozniacki reached down into that reserve tank that only true champions have claim.
“I just told myself, ‘Keep fighting. She still has to win four more points to win the match so you're still in there,’” said the Wozniacki.
Realizing it was now or never, the Blond Bombshell broke Dimentieva, then held serve.
“Well, of course, I would love to have finished the match already back then,” Wozniacki said Wozniacki. “She started to serve, which gets on the line, and I didn't take it. Then afterwards I hit two short returns, which she just goes in and attacks on. Everything from then just turns around and she had a great start to the tiebreaker. I wasn't too pleased about that.”
But hold on she did, emerging victorious in a 1-6, 6-3, 7-6(5) epic struggle that will no doubt soon find a permanent home on ESPN Classic.
“Well, [I’m] just happy that I won today and that I got through,” continued an exhausted Wozniacki to the assembled press after the match. “The crowd really helped me out today. It wasn't easy.”
She then said she was going to get a massage and go straight to bed. There is no rest for the weary at the Pilot Pen, after all. She would be back on Center Court Saturday at 1 p.m. sharp to defend her title against Nadia Petrova of Russia, the tournament’s No 8 seed.
After a match like Friday’s, how could the championship be anything but anti-climactic?
But Wozniacki and Petrova did everything in their power to entertain the fans in attendance and a worldwide television audience.
The second set turned into a comedy of errors. As opposed to much of the tournament, in which cold temperatures, drizzle, rain and wind were Mother Nature’s obstacles, on Saturday she threw a curveball at the players in the form of the unrelenting glare of the mid-day sun.
Wozniacki broke Petrova to open the second set, and appeared to be in the driver’s seat. But what was that adage your favorite uncle used to tell you about looks being deceiving? With neither player able to see the ball clearly thanks to the glare, the Russian broke back three times and won the second set, 6-3.
“It was really difficult to see the ball when you were throwing it up from one side," said Wozniacki afterwards. “That made it a little bit more difficult.”
Petrova, who called tournament director Anne Worcester the week before asking for a wildcard into the Pilot Pen to get in some more matches before this week’s U.S. Open, agreed.
“Yes, especially when [Wozniacki] would throw those defensive lobs,” said Petrova, who served up 12 aces in the match. “So many times bounced right in the sun spot. I was losing the balls completely. I miss-hit a lot of shots today because of that.”
And the awards ceremony did, in fact, seem like a coronation, with Wozniacki’s adoring fans ready to bestow upon her the title of New Haven’s adopted daughter—a monikker Wozniacki would welcome. Why mess with success? She is 13-0 lifetime in New Haven
Even though there is no title sponsor for the tournament next year—the Pilot Pen Corporation earlier announced that it was dropping its title affiliation with the event after a 16-year run—everyone associated with the event is optimistic that a new title sponsor will be found in the near future. (How does “The Subway” sound?) Assuming the show does go on, count Wozniacki in.
“I love this tournament. It’s been great preparation for me the last couple of years, so I would love to come back,” said Wozniacki, who is ranked No. 2 in the world and is seeded No. 1 at the U.S. Open because of the withdrawal of No. 1 Serena Williams. CBS broadcaster Mary Carillo reported during the Pilot Pen championship match that Williams suffered the injury when a beer bottle fell on her foot while watching a World Cup match in rowdy bar in Munich, Germany.
Should Wozniacki be able to win in New York and earn her first major tournament championship, she will move past Williams into the No. 1 spot. And because she won the USTA’s U.S. Open Series during the summer hardcourt season, she will earn an additional $1 million … if she wins the coveted title in New York. But the road ahead will still be a rough one to hoe for the Danish star, even without Serena.
Even though she was won four WTA titles this year, Wozniacki hasn’t fared nearly as well in Grand Slam events, losing in the fourth round in the Australian Open, the quarterfinals at Roland Garros, and the fourth round at Wimbledon. She also owns an 0-4 career record vs. Venus Williams, 0-4 vs. Jelena Jankovic, and 0-1 vs. Kim Clijsters, at least one of whom would likely need to be hurdled past in order to claim her first major championship.
But Worcester pointed out an interesting tid bit after the championship match. As Woznkiacki chases Venus Williams’ record of four-straight New Haven titles, Williams ended up winning the U.S. Open after two of those championships.
“Really?” said Wozniakcki. “I would love it to be my year!”
The critical problem is that anyone but the most ardent tennis fan would have no idea who any of these guys were if they accidently ran over them in their cars.
Case in point: In the men’s final, Sergiy Stakhovsky of the Ukraine won his second tournament of the year, beating Denis Istomin of 3-6, 6-3, 6-4. In the process, Stakhovsky remains unbeaten in four career ATP finals. Including a win in Hertogenbosch this year.
“I'm really glad to win this title,” he said after becoming the first Ukranian to win two tournaments in the same season since Andrei Medvedev in 1994. “It pushed me to another level again.”
But, to borrow a line from Chicago, “Does anybody really care?” To be fair—sure, if Blake had one last run left in him, there would have been some local interest in the men’s final. But if Fish and/or Baghdatis made it into the Finals in New Haven, would it have created that much of a buzz?
Worcester and her team now must kick it into overdrive if professional tennis is to survive in New Haven. The tournament has until late September to inform the USTA if financing had been secured for 2011.
In many ways, the tournament is in the same position as was then called the Buick Open in Cromwell after the car manufacturer opted out in 2006. In fact, Cromwell had been yanked from the PGA Tour and was slotted into the Nationwide Tour circuit (pro golf’s minor leagues) before Traveler’s Insurance swept in to save the day.
With national coverage on ESPN2 and CBS, and plenty of star power attending year after year after year, tournament officials would be best served by focusing on saving the WTA event in New Haven, and cutting loose with the ATP stop.