Serena’s comeback hits snag at Sony

Comebacks are tough. A few steps forward and then you hit a road block, especially at this level of tennis where there are no bunnies out there waiting to be dazzled.

Serena Williams, who knows that full well, was given a sharp reminder under the lights Tuesday on Stadium Court at the Sony Ericsson Open. She was beaten 6-4, 6-4 by Caroline Wozniacki, the somewhat underestimated former world No. 1 who had not beaten Serena in three previous meetings.

So, within a matter of hours, two Americans who have carried the game to the heights in this country bowed out, unable to deal with the twin problems of having to face technically efficient opponents and not being match tight. Andy Roddick ran out of steam against Juan Monaco and Serena, too, seemed unusually stressed at times after furious baseline rallies had sent her scampering all over the court.

Serena insisted she felt fine physically but said, “I just made a tremendous amount of errors. There’s no reason for that. I’m older, and I shouldn’t do that. There’s no excuse. I just gotta stop that. It’s silly.”

She did admit that Wozniacki “did well, she moved well” but, mostly, Serena turned the frustration on herself, claiming she “could’ve played a lot better. I probably played about 20 percent. You know, it would really suck if I had to sit here and say I couldn’t do any better. That’s not the case.”

For a champion like Serena, it will never be the case. And if it ever is, she will never admit it. It is just not something champions can countenance. There always has to be a better day on the horizon, and for this great competitor there almost certainly will be.

For Wozniacki — watched by boyfriend Rory McIlroy, who had driven down from golf practice up the coast — this was a huge boost to her confidence after losing the No. 1 ranking she had held for a total of 67 weeks until Victoria Azarenka knocked her off the top spot after the Australian Open. Unfairly criticized for being No. 1 without ever having won a Grand Slam, the Dane had found herself so unwanted by the media after her previous matches that she was being relegated to what is known as the “small interview room” instead of the mini-theatre equipped with TV cameras and transcribers. For someone who seems to enjoy the limelight, that could not have been fun.

But if Wozniacki continues to play like this, the limelight soon will catch up with her again. No matter what Serena had to say about it, Wozniacki’s performance was highly impressive. Not only did she serve particularly well, but she kept Serena on the move with the depth and angle of her returns.

Nor did she panic when the woman who has won this Miami title five times broke back from 2-5 to force Wozniacki to serve for the match a second time. The advice her father and coach gave her when he came out to talk to her on court (as is allowed under WTA Tour rules) was obviously on the button.

“He said, ‘Just go for it. Don’t think about the score. If you make a mistake, doesn’t matter. But don’t just put the ball back because you won’t have a chance. Make her move and play it deep,’ ” she said.

His daughter was able to take all that on board and made sure she did not give Serena a chance to grab her serve a second time. In the crunch, with a full crowd screaming as the ball thundered across the net, Wozniacki did not falter as she completed what she admitted was “an important victory for me, definitely.”

She added, “You know Serena has won so many Grand Slam and so many tournaments, something I would love to achieve one day. So to beat someone like her that I know never gives up is definitely something that means a lot to me. Against someone like Serena, you know you have to fight to the last point.”

Now, Wozniacki will have to do it all again when she meets Maria Sharapova in the semifinals.