For her own self-esteem as the world No. 1, Caroline Wozniacki needed to win this one. And eventually she did, but not before the athletic and often amazing Francesca Schiavone had put the Dane in dire straits when she led by a set and a break in this Australian Open quarterfinal.
It said much for Wozniacki’s coolness under fire that she was able to turn the match around to reach her first semifinal in Melbourne with a 3-6, 6-3, 6-3 victory. On Thursday, she will play China’s Li Na, who defeated Andrea Petkovic of Germany 6-2, 6-4 earlier Tuesday. Li also knocked Wozniacki out of the tournament 12 months ago.
There were those who wondered whether the 30-year-old Italian would last long physically after playing in the longest women’s match in Grand Slam history two days before when she defeated Svetlana Kuznetsova 6-4, 1-6, 16-14. But despite a bandaged thigh, Schiavone was quick out of the gates on a warm, cloudy afternoon, grabbing every opportunity to put the pressure on Wozniacki with her fast footwork, dangerous one-handed backhand and willingness to charge the net.
By the time Schiavone had established a 6-3, 3-1 lead, Wozniacki realized that she needed to break out of her defensive mode and become more aggressive.
"I knew I had to step it up," Wozniacki said. "With her heavy spin, she had been pushing me too far back. So I tried to get forward a bit more and stay focused."
It was, however, the Italian who was on the move even as more errors started creeping into her game. She hit 41 winners to the Dane’s 14 and made 46 unforced errors compared to Wozniacki’s 15. Those figures reveal the stark contrast in styles.
But, if Wozniacki is not the most exciting player on court, she has certainly tried to brighten her news conferences this week. After taking the wind out of the media’s sails a few days ago by answering all the questions she knew we would ask before we could ask them, she then got a little carried away and made up a story about being bitten by a kangaroo. The story had been written locally before she realized people had taken her seriously and was forced to apologize.
But Wozniacki keeps coming back for more. Tuesday she appeared in the news conference wearing boxing gloves and carrying a large inflatable kangaroo. "I’m ready for a fight," she said with a huge smile. One wonders what she will think up if she wins the tournament.
According to Andrea Petkovic, that is not going to happen. Having just lost to her, Petkovic thinks it is Li who is going to take the title.
"I think she’s going to win the tournament," Petkovic said emphatically. "I just have that feeling. She has that aura."
The Chinese player, who also reached the semifinal here in 2010, is certainly playing well enough to go further this time. Asked to describe what makes Li so impressive, Petkovic said, "She’s very stable. She moves very well and has great footwork. She takes the ball early and hits it flat and deep. It’s not like she’s a big hitter like Maria Sharapova, but she’s sneaky aggressive, I would call it. My coach called her the Nikolay Davydenko of women’s tennis. I don’t know if that is fitting, but she’s playing very well."
Li said she is playing about the same as last year but is happier with her team, which includes her coach and husband, Jiang Shan, and her trainer Alex Stober, a veteran of the ATP tour who used to look after Pete Sampras. She, too, has a sense of humor and is not afraid to share it. When asked if her husband was worried about how much of her prize she would spend on her credit card, she replied, "You know, he’s totally in control. China Bank, if you use a credit card, they will send a text message like where are you, when and how much are you spending. If I use it, he will know for sure. I can use the card, but he is totally in control."
Her laughter suggested she was happy with this arrangement and, apart from keeping an eye on her finances, Jiang seems to be guiding her in the right direction on court, too.