NEW YORK — At heart, Caroline Wozniacki is a marathoner. The two-time US Open finalist was one long before she ran the 2014 New York City marathon on a lark and finished in an outstanding 3:27. The 26-year-old Dane runs, runs, then runs some more, retrieving and returning shots most of her rivals in tennis can only watch fly by.
Madison Keys, a gifted 21-year-old, is a different breed of player and athlete. She has more of a sprinter’s game, based on short bursts of brilliant shot-making with interludes of ordinary and sometimes even poor play.
Here at the US Open, No. 8 Keys had tiptoed along the edge of disaster, rebounding from threatening deficits in two of her three previous matches. On Sunday, Wozniacki jogged up alongside Keys and shoved her into the abyss, winning their fourth-round clash in just an hour and 18 minutes, 6-3, 6-4.
Count this one as another major step in Wozniacki’s comeback from an ankle injury that helped drive her ranking down to its current No. 74. Wozniacki is taking her comeback one step at a time. Like a veteran distance runner, she isn’t craning her neck, trying to spot the finish line. She knows that a full-on renaissance calls for stamina and patience.
Keys had just one break point. Her unforced errors exceeded Wozniacki’s by more than a multiple of four (33-7). Keys’ serve is already one of the most feared weapons in tennis; it rivals Serena’ own. But here’s the key stat: Wozniacki put 81 percent of her serve returns into play (57 of 70). Meanwhile, Keys managed to return just 66 percent (31 of 47) of Wozniacki’s deliveries.
True, Wozniacki’s serve is improved. But the theory that all Keys still needs to do to break through is more Grand Slam experience and a greater ability to win when she doesn’t have her A-game is wearing thin.
The one thing all great players bring to the table almost every day is a baseline level of consistency. Wozniacki still hasn’t won a major, but she has that fundamental ability to keep the ball between the stripes. She may never have the firepower of a Keys or even a Petra Kvitova, but Woz is young enough to win a major. She may finally win one next Sunday if she can continue to successfully marry consistency and aggression.
It’s tempting to think that Wozniacki’s biggest opportunities have passed her by. But this is a woman who can run and run. She’s a marathoner. She may catch up with them yet.