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Tuesday, May 28, 2024

Caroline Wozniacki Excels in the Art of Comebacks

The United States likes to think of itself as the nation of opportunity. Humility is required. Apply yourself diligently. Soon, you will become a different person, or at least a better one.

That the opening several days of the U.S. Open have been dominated by comebacks seems appropriate. Caroline Wozniacki, Elina Svitolina, Stan Wawrinka, and Jennifer Brady are just a few who have had success. Some, including as Venus Williams, who lost her first match, were not as fortunate.

What ties them together, however, is the allure of a sport and lifestyle that so many players complain about but ultimately struggle to leave behind, knowing that once the door locks completely (as it does for everyone eventually), there is no way to reenter the world of international glamour, fame, and money.

Not just that. The 38-year-old Wawrinka was seen on Thursday playing in the twilight of Court 17, a tennis bullring of sorts, reliving his glory days before foot operations appeared to herald the end. He had just won four tough sets against 14-year-old Tomas Etcheverry, inspiring the 2,800-strong audience that had been cheering for him all day. Like a conductor, he roused the crowd into action, encouraging the various sections of the bleachers to yell louder in exchange for a commemorative ball at the end of the game.

In a thrilling three-set matchup between two comeback tales, Wozniacki, 33, a former world No. 1 competing in her maiden Grand Slam after a three-year, two-pregnancy retirement, prevailed over Brady, 29, in the third round on Friday afternoon.

It was Wozniacki’s second win in three days at Arthur Ashe Stadium, the site of her breakthrough run to the final of her maiden Grand Slam tournament 14 years ago. On a Wednesday night under the lights, she defeated her longtime adversary and the defending Wimbledon champion, Petra Kvitova, in two sets. On Friday, she won 12 of the last 14 games to come back from a set down and beat 2021 Australian Open finalist Brady. Three years ago, she never would have imagined she would be back on this court, much alone as the victor.

Wawrinka and Wozniacki’s chemistry makes sense in this situation. Jimmy Connors, at 39 years old, made it all the way to the quarterfinals of this event in 1991. In 2009, Kim Clijsters entered the competition as a wild card and won the singles championship in her very next tournament.

She had spent the better part of her life performing. She finally reached the top of the rankings and won a Grand Slam event in 2018, at the Australian Open. She had amassed a fortune of $35 million from her prize winnings and sponsorship deals were worth tens of millions more.

After two years of struggling with rheumatoid arthritis, a severe inflammatory illness that often left her joints so inflamed she difficult to get out of bed, Wozniacki retired from the sport in 2020. Wozniacki has been a regular of tennis television commentary while raising her two children in Florida with her husband, David Lee, a former NBA star.

The Wozniacki family has a long history of dedicated athleticism. Her parents both represented their countries internationally; her dad in football and her mum in volleyball. Wozniacki, a self-proclaimed “fitness freak,” saw tennis as both a career and a cardio exercise. However, she didn’t pick up a racket for so long during her brief retirement that she couldn’t find them when she finally decided to get back in the game and hit a few balls.

There are several strategies for making a comeback. Ukrainian-born Wozniacki’s rival, Svitolina, also gave birth last year. Both women made an effort to keep up their fitness levels during their pregnancies. After giving birth, she worked with new coach Raemon Sluiter for three months to get her game back in shape.

Considering how much of her time and energy she was devoting to fundraising for relief efforts in Ukraine, she competed in a series of lower-level events in the spring as part of her preparation for top-level tennis. Svitolina reached the fourth round of the French Open in June and the semifinals at Wimbledon in July. Her and Gael Monfils’s daughter stayed behind in Europe.

While Wozniacki started her return in the two major U.S. Open tuneup events in Montreal and outside of Cincinnati, she only played three matches after her recovery before competing in the last Grand Slam of the year. She expressed confidence in her ability to win the U.S. Open in Vogue.

The top tennis players eventually realise they are more than just athletes; they are also entertainers and performers. For some who make the transition, performing what they have dedicated their lives to since they were very young, to the exclusion of almost all other pursuits, in front of thousands of people becomes a source of inspiration and motivation in and of itself, in addition to the energy gained from competing.

Dan O'Brien
Dan O'Brien
I am a journalist for The National Era with an emphasis in sports.
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