Tennis

Wozniacki not at Clijsters' level yet

Caroline Wozniacki is no match for Kim Clijsters.
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Matt Cronin

Matt Cronin is a senior editor at Inside Tennis magazine and the co-owner of the award-winning TennisReporters.net.

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Maybe in three months, if she faces Kim Clijsters in the Australian Open final, Caroline Wozniacki will find the will and the skill to be able to put down a superior elite player in a defining match.

But on Sunday at the season-ending WTA Championships in Doha, Qatar, it was clear the ambitious yet still developing Dane is not up to the task yet, as three-time U.S. Open champion Clijsters showed the feisty 20-year-old that a substantial amount of variety and a willingness to be offensive matter a great deal when she pulled off a 6-3, 5-7, 6-3 victory in two hours.

Wozniacki has absolutely nothing to embarrassed about, as she battled hard and gave it her all during a week when her new No. 1 ranking was in question. But while it's obvious she's attempting to be a more forceful player, she still isn't secure charging the net or ripping a forehand, and she isn't strong enough yet to be able to power big serves on demand.

Clijsters is and is also much more capable of quickly ending points when she gets ball into her wheelhouse. While Wozniacki can do that off her backhand side, especially crosscourt, she rarely steps into her forehand and is just one of a number of younger women who have been taught to hit most forehands with an open stance, an absolute mistake unless you have tremendous upper-body strength.

What's truly remarkable about this trend is that if you look at most of the great champions of the past decade with the most lethal forehands -- Steffi Graf, Monica Seles, Serena Williams, Lindsay Davenport, Justine Henin and Kim Clijsters -- they all were willing to hit with a closed stance and step into the ball, which gave them more use of their lower body strength.

Wozniacki has plenty of that, and if she doesn't want to end up like Martina Hingis when the Swiss began to go into her decline -- consistently having to counterpunch off her forehand side and unable to generate much of her own pace off that wing -- she's going to have to get more comfortable with a closed stance.

However, what's interesting about the Clijsters-Wozniacki matchup is the Dane plays a lot like Clijsters did at the same age, using her soccer player's daughter's muscular legs to go end to end, retrieve hundreds of balls and force her foes into errors. On Sunday, she actually did try to be offensive coming into net way more than she usually does, but her transition game is suspect, she's not sure what a proper approach shot is yet and doesn't volley that well.

But Wozniacki does fight well, and while, like Clijsters, she's seen as not having a mean bone in her body, she has a tremendous amount of inner fire and cannot stand to be embarrassed. If not for that inner street fighter lurking in her heart, there was no way she would have come back from 1-4 in the second set, running off six of seven games. Clearly, Clijsters went on a mental walkabout, but Wozniacki did tighten the screws in her own game and you could see she believed there was a way to win the match.

But when Clijsters began to play well again in the third set, there really was no way for Wozniacki to punch through, because Clijsters in a better all-around player, matching the Dane's strength and having few of her weaknesses.

Once Clijsters cleaned up her unforced errors, she raced ahead, hammering away in crosscourt rallies and moving quickly forward to swipe balls down the line. Up 3-2 in the third set, she broke Wozniacki is a searing rally with a blazing inside out forehand winner, and then it was clear her brand of controlled aggression had tied Wozniacki up in knots. Clijsters won the match by blasting two overheads and then seeing Wozniacki bury a forehand return into the net.

"I felt like it was never going to end," said Clijsters, who won the tournament for a third time to go with victories in 2002 and 2003. “It was a really tough battle with some great shots, great tennis and great fitness. I'm glad that I won, obviously it's disappointing for Caroline, but I don't know how many more years I'm going to keep doing this so. She has a great future ahead of her."

Clijsters won her fifth WTA title of the year, following title runs in Brisbane, Miami, Cincinnati and the U.S. Open. Four of those titles were WTA premier tournaments and one was a major, while of Wozniacki's six crowns, three were of premier variety (Montreal, Tokyo and Beijing) and none was a major.

While Clijsters will end the year ranked No. 3, she's certainly been a more successful player than No. 1 Wozniacki at the bigger events. It could be argued her year was equal to that of Serena Williams, who only won two titles in 2010, but they happened to be majors, the Aussie Open and Wimbledon. Serena missed the U.S. Open due to injury, and Clijsters also missed a major, the French Open, with an ailment.

While Wozniacki goes back to the drawing board and examines what could win her a first major crown in Melbourne, Clijsters has to be pretty secure she has it all.

Though it hasn't been easy for her to be consistently successful when she's chosen to play sporadically in her comeback – finding ways to spend quality time with her daughter, Jada – she hasn't lost a step in her return to the tour. Clijsters has more weapons at her disposal: She's a much improved volleyer, owns a dependable slice backhand to go along with her blazing two-hander, is more aggressive returning server and is emotionally more secure she belongs in the upper echelons of the game, rather than being a pretender.

Recall that before Clijsters won her first U.S. Open in 2005 at age 22, she, like Wozniacki, was also considered a bit of pretender when she first reached the No. 1 ranking back in 2003, before she won her first Slam. It actually took her five appearances in major finals to stand up and be counted.

Now, since she came back in August 2009, she's won six of the 15 tournaments she's entered and hasn't taken a loss to any player she considers her primary rivals – Serena and Venus Williams, Justine Henin and Maria Sharapova. She's also done a good job of facing down the talented kids like Wozniacki.

Maybe next year, if Clijsters, 27, can avoid injury, she'll win her first major off U.S. Open hard courts and someday be mentioned in the same breath as the Williams sisters and Henin, all whom have many more major titles than she does.

A third WTA Championships final looks great on her resume, but a fourth major at new locale would add a lot more polish.

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