Tennis

Sharapova faces road block in Wozniacki

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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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INDIAN WELLS, Calif.

Caroline Wozniacki is one of those rare players who can be offensive with her defense.

So much so that before Alisa Kleybanova went on court and was ground down by the Dane in a three-setter in Tuesday’s fourth round at the BNP Paribas Open, she noted how some players already are lacking confidence before they go on court against Wozniacki because she puts up such a wall behind the baseline that they don’t know how to hit through or around her. Some get so discouraged that they mentally throw in the towel before they strike the first ball.

Caroline Wozniacki

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The daughter of a soccer standout, Wozniacki can feel that and is more than happy to put on the ferocious face of an all-star goalkeeper.

“I know that if a player has to beat me, either she has to overpower me or she needs to stand there for hours and hours,” said Wozniacki, who advanced to the semifinals Thursday when her opponent, No. 9 Victoria Azarenka, retired after three games because of a hip problem. “That’s mostly what happens if a player has to beat me. It’s a good feeling to have, because I feel that I’m in good shape. I can stand there for hours and I can take my chances. I also think I have developed my aggressive game. So I can step it up if I need to, and I think that the players feel that. But at the same time, it’s very important for me that (when) I go out to every single match, I’m 100 percent focused, and that’s what I am every time.”

Wozniacki’s opponent in the semifinals will be Maria Sharapova, a player who does not tend to leg out victories, even though her legs are very long. The three-time Grand Slam champion, who has not won a huge title since the 2008 Australian Open, has had her moments since she returned from October 2008 shoulder surgery, but she has had a hard time staying consistently healthy and reconstructing the game that once made her the most feared player in the sport.

Last summer, when she was producing the best tennis of her comeback by reaching the finals at Stanford and Cincinnati, Sharapova had high hopes for the U.S. Open. But she was unable to put together enough lethal combinations against Wozniacki, failing to execute three-to-five-shot combinations and falling 6-3, 6-4. It was a vintage Wozniacki victory, full of spunk, hustle and competitiveness.

She forced Sharapova into errors and, unlike Vera Zvonareva – who knocked Wozniacki out in the semifinals – she was unable to find the right mix of defense and offense. Wozniacki took a go-getter’s attitude into the match and, unlike the first two times she played Sharapova and lost, she felt her game had matured to the point where she could work her over.

“I had seen Maria win the Grand Slams, and she’s hitting the ball hard,” Wozniacki said. “She’s a fighter. But I know that I’m a good player. I’m playing good tennis, and to beat me you have to play very well. If you do that, it’s just too good. I will try next time.”

If Sharapova cannot dictate the terms against the Dane on Friday night at Indian Wells and plays as sporadically as she did in dispatching Peng Shuai 6-2, 5-7, 6-3 on Thursday, the result of the contest could be much the same as at the U.S. Open. She simply cannot throw in 13 double faults, as she did Thursday.

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Sharapova has gained a new respect for Wozniacki, but that doesn’t mean she thinks she should have lost their U.S. Open contest, which all but ended her 2010 season.

“Listen, she’s the No. 1 player in the world, and she certainly deserves it,” Sharapova said. “She’s doing a lot of things really well right now, and she’s a very consistent player. That has won her many, many matches. I didn’t have a great match against her at the U.S. Open. I didn’t feel like I played that well. I just remember a lot of errors. When you’re making errors, you’re definitely not executing a game plan. I’m hoping that tomorrow, I’ll come out and it will be a different situation. I’m just gonna fight for every point. I look forward to it.”

While Wozniacki has yet to win a Grand Slam and it’s clear that world No. 2 Kim Clijsters is still a better big-match player than she is, Wozniacki has the look of four-time Grand Slam champion Arantxa Sanchez Vicario, a relentless retriever who would run her foes into the ground.

She’s so sturdy that when asked about the last time she actually got tired of sprinting to and fro, she had to think hard and went back more than a year to the 2009 WTA Championships. In the intense heat in Doha, Qatar, she actually fell sobbing to the court in agony due to cramps against Zvonareva, but then got up and won a marathon three-setter 6-0, 6-7 (3), 6-4.

“Actually, I have to say I didn’t feel that tired. My body didn’t feel tired, but my brain was just tired,” Wozniacki said. “I think it showed.”

That’s one tough 20-year-old.

Historically, Sharapova’s resume as a gladiator is much longer than Wozniacki’s, going back to her first major title at 2004 Wimbledon. This is the furthest she’s advanced at a tournament since last summer at Cincinnati. The 18th-ranked Sharapova has a chance to re-enter the top 10 if she reaches the final, but she could care less. The 23-year-old is well aware that the only way to stay relevant is to keep winning, and the only way to keep winning is to beat the younger set, which is headed by Wozniacki. She’s quite capable of hitting the Dane off the court if she’s on the ball, but it will take the best tennis the world has seen from her in six months to pull off the feat.

She’s rarely an underdog, but she is against Wozniacki.

“I look at the big picture, because I think it’s really important to have a good perspective of where you see yourself now and where you want to see yourself,” Sharapova said. “I have personal goals, of course. I still believe that I have a lot in me.”

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