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In defence of the defensive game

Caroline Wozniacki

New York: It is an oft-repeated maxim in many sports, but there is room for questioning it when it comes to tennis: Can defence win championships?

This decade, the question applied most aptly to Caroline Wozniacki of Denmark, who reached the No. 1 ranking in 2010 and held it for 66 weeks, but fell short of lifting a major trophy.

She uses little of the bludgeoning style that has taken Serena Williams to so many Grand Slam titles. Wozniacki’s game used to be built around speed and maddening consistency. She used high, deep, looping shots that pushed opponents back into uncomfortable parts of the court, and waited as they erred on a low-percentage shot out of frustration.

While she was able to drive her backhand when needed, her forehand was a consistently high-arching shot. “She just gets an extra ball back and makes you just play an extra point, an extra shot, which can be difficult at times,” Serena said.

Wozniacki often bristled at the suggestion that her success was built around defence. “I don’t think I’m playing defensive tennis,” she said in 2010. “I think I’m playing the way I have to, to beat my opponents.”

Though Wozniacki has won many tour-level events — she notched her 22nd career title in Istanbul in July — she often found herself at the mercy of her opponents in the later rounds of major tournaments.

When she lost to Li Na at the 2010 Australian Open, she hit only three winners to Li’s 21. In the semi-final of the 2011 US Open, Wozniacki’s most recent major semi-final before this one, she hit zero winners in the first set, compared to the 18 by Serena.

Many former players and commentators have made their dissatisfaction with Wozniacki’s playing style clear.

“I took the ball earlier and didn’t give them as much time,” Martina Hingis told Tennis Channel in 2011. “If she wants to win a Grand Slam, she’s going to have to take charge more. She doesn’t have one great weapon. You need that one little extra thing to overcome,” she said.

Some close to Wozniacki agreed. “I think it’s no secret that she needs to play more aggressive, and hit a heavier ball,” Thomas Hogstedt, Wozniacki’s coach at the time, said in January. “That’s mostly what we’re working on. And still, not change the game too much.”

Wozniacki and Hogstedt split quickly after she lost in the third round of the Australian Open, and she returned to working with her father, Piotr Wozniacki.

After a disappointing spring on hardcourts and clay, Wozniacki began to find her form once the tour transitioned to grass. Then on her preferred hardcourts in July, she found a balance of speed and successful aggression that had previously proved elusive. She had strong performances in lead-up tournaments to the US Open, including two hard-fought three-set losses to Serena.

“She’s really taking that defensive game and really just doing well with it,” Serena said after her second victory. “She also has added a lot of offence to her game and trying to go for some shots. She does both really well.”

Wozniacki backed up those strong results by reaching the semi-finals of the US Open.

Fifth-seeded Maria Sharapova lost to Wozniacki in the fourth round on Sunday, despite having won their last three meetings, and said she saw an evolution in her opponent’s game.

“I think she’s better at what she’s done really well in her career,” Sharapova said. “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 defence shots. It’s not just balls up in the air.”

The numbers backed that observation: Wozniacki hit 22 winners against Sharapova. She did even better in her quarter-final win over the 13th-seeded Sara Errani, smacking 26 winners to just 12 by Errani in a 6-0, 6-1 rout.

“I think my greatest strength is I can go from defence to offence and offence to defence,” Wozniacki said after beating Sharapova.

“I think I have done a good job these last few months, you know, finding that balance between those two. I think I have served really well and returned well. So I think that’s my biggest strength. And I never give up.”

If she can beat Peng Shuai in the semi-finals and then possibly Serena in the final, Wozniacki will have won the Grand Slam title many said she could not, with the offence she was told she lacked.

“I have proven people wrong so many times,” she said. “I was told when I was younger there is no chance I will make the top 100, top 50, top 30. Every time I have proven them wrong. It’s kind of nice.”