NEW YORK – When the final assessment is made of Caroline Wozniacki's career after she retires, history will probably treat her with more consideration than the present and past have.
Throughout the highs and the lows, the 24-year-old from Denmark has kept an even keel, enjoying her time at the top, sloughing off criticisms warranted and otherwise, and just carrying on.
After a spring of discontent that included a rather insensitive telephone ending of their engagement by her former fiancé, golf superstar Rory McIlroy, Wozniacki has proceeded to have an outstanding summer on the hard courts.
She crowned that with a well-earned 6-4, 2-6, 6-2 victory over Maria Sharapova in the fourth round Sunday at the U.S. Open, and now has to be considered a major favorite to get to the final out of a half of the draw decimated with upsets.
"Yeah, definitely it ranks up there. Maria obviously is a tough competitor. She's won here before. She won the French Open this year. You know, it was a really good win for me. Beating her here at the U.S. Open, you know, it's a tough task. I'm really happy to be through and have another chance to play in the next round," Wozniacki said.
During her on-court interview earlier, here was a little emotion in her voice, a little quaver that you rarely see, testament to what it meant to her and how difficult the task was with the wind and the humidity making it a struggle for both.
"The season for me has been a little bit up and down, and it's so nice to kind of start feeling like I'm playing the way I want to. ... I actually started already feeling really good on court since Eastbourne. I have just been building on my game since then," Wozniacki added. "I'm serving well, I'm running well, I'm staying aggressive when I have to, and I make the right decisions at the right moment. And I enjoy playing."
Sharapova took the defeat with her customary grace. She stopped to sign autographs on her way out of Arthur Ashe Stadium and analyzing what she wasn't able to do.
"Yeah, making a long story short, I felt like in the end of the first set made a few sloppy errors to lose that first set in the end. Was happy with the way I turned things around and started playing a bit more aggressive. Got in the points with her.," Sharapova said. "In the third set I stopped doing that. Allowed her to get back in those long points, long rallies, and ultimately went for the shots that created errors."
When she was No. 1, as recently as three years ago, Wozniacki was criticized for getting to the top of women's tennis without having won a major title. She was in good company back in those years, with the likes of Jelena Jankovic and Dinara Safina also getting to the top spot without one of the big trophies in their case. At the moment, Simona Halep is the No. 2 player in the world behind Serena Williams, and she's in the same boat.
But Wozniacki enjoyed being at the top. She handled it well. She didn't treat it like a millstone around her neck. She took the constant criticism about her lack of big titles, her essentially defensive game, her omnipresent father and whatever else came her way with impressive equanimity. When she dropped out of the top spot – indeed, came close to dropping out of the top 20 earlier this year – she handled that the same way.
"I never doubt myself. I work hard every day. I know I have the levels to compete against anybody, and I can beat anyone on a good day. But as I said, the women's game is really evolving and it gets tougher and tougher," she said.
The main suggestion that fans and experts and everyone in between had for Wozniacki was that she needed to get away from her patient, defensive, low-unforced-error style and become a lot more aggressive – as if this was something she could just flip a switch on, as if it were some hidden part of her game that all she had to do was bring out.
The truth, of course, is that the game a player comes to the Tour with is pretty much the game they're going to have. To completely change the focus from something she's done well her entire life was unlikely to happen no matter how many coaches were brought in to take a look at things. In the end, Wozniacki always went back to father/coach Piotr, to her comfort zone, to the place she played her best tennis.
Even Sharapova, asked to analyze what has improved in Wozniacki's game over the last few months, alluded to that.
"More consistency. Able to do it better. ... Sometimes players look to improve their weaknesses. I think her strength has improved incredibly well," she said. "I think she's better at what she's done really well in her career. I think she's moving extremely well; she's fit. I mean, she's always been fit, but there is a little bit more on her defense shots. It's not just balls up in the air. She's doing a little bit more with them. But she did that really well today."
Wozniacki will face No. 13 seed Sara Errani in the quarter-finals, which she will take in a New York minute.