By Jane Voigt
No one. Like NO ONE had penciled in Shuai Peng as a women’s singles semifinalist for this, or any other, U.S. Open.
But it could not have happened to a nicer woman and, from what we’ve seen so far, aggressive and comprehensive player. She has not dropped a set, losing 30 games through five rounds.
Caroline Wozniacki’s run to the semifinals has not been as improbable; she was the runner-up in 2011. She was ranked number one in the world for two consecutive years, 2010 and 2011.
Her year started well with solid results, but hit bottom at Roland Garros. She lost in the first round. It was at that time Rory McIlroy broke off their engagement. But Wozniacki rose from the ashes quickly, saying she was fine and proving her worth on court with a semifinal run in Eastbourne plus two convincing tussles with Serena Williams on the hard courts of Montreal and Cincinnati. Wozniacki lost both those matches, but her game had shifted. Yet, her comments reveal little.
“It’s [Wozniacki’s game] definitely evolved,” she said. “I’m definitely more experienced. I know my game much better. I have been in these big matches before, and, you know, I think all the time I improve. Women’s tennis keeps getting stronger. I try and have more — or stronger serve, better returns.”
Against Maria Sharapova, the 10th seeded Wozniacki upped the ante. The humble assessment of her game’s evolution conflicted with her ability to run down balls, which has always been a strong suit, coupled with winners off the forehand and backhand sides. She pumped up fans on Arthur Ashe, too. They welcomed her pride of accomplishment with deafening cheers.
Sara Errani had no chance against Wozniacki; she lost one game as she applied pressure on the Italian from start to finish.
Caroline, who at one point was nicknamed ’Sunshine,’ has taken her punishment from the press. When ranked number one, she was constantly pummeled with one question … do you feel like a legitimate number one without having won a major.
Wozniacki defended herself as much as possible because it didn’t really matter what she said. Results were apparent. Opinions were formed, many of them logical. Caroline just couldn’t get past the big hitters. Plus some were not around: Serena Williams and Petra Kvitova, to name two. However, Wozniacki’s consistency and consistent progression through draws kept her ranking up.
“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.”
Wozniacki knows the match against Peng will be tough. “Peng is close to the baseline, going for her shots more. It’s going to be a hard one, but, again, it’s going to be fun.”
The third highest ranked Chinese woman in the world, Peng carved out her place in the draw by defeating three seeded players: Agnieszka Radwanska, Roberta Vinci, and Lucie Safarova. Plus she put to bed the fairytale story of Belinda Bencic, the 17-year-old Swiss phenom.
She attributes her success — this is her first major semifinal — to improved fitness and practice. Sounds mundane, yet tennis can be simple in its development but complicated in matches.
In 2005, Peng defeated a then robust Kim Clijsters. At the time, she thought Peng could be a top five player. Today she is ranked No. 39 with the WTA. She will probably move into the top 20 Tuesday.
“I still really remember the match,” Peng said. “Is also one of the amazing time for me. It’s almost like 10 years. It’s long time. I still looking forward, try my best, keep going, working hard. Then do what I can do.”
Head-to-head, Wozniacki’s in charge, 5-1. They last played in New Haven in 2013. Peng’s only win was in 2007 at Rogers Cup. Wozniacki has 22 career titles. Peng has none. However, she won two Grand Slam doubles titles: Wimbledon 2013 and Roland Garros 2014. That says a lot about play under pressure at the biggest moments in tennis.
Of course both women will be hungry to make the final. And much can depend on the weather inside Arthur Ashe Stadium. There will be wind, count on it. If Peng can exert her standard of aggression and create the angled winners we’ve seen during the previous rounds, then she has a huge chance of pulling off the win.
Down The Tee picks Wozniacki in three, though. The experience and occasion will sit better with the Dane, giving her an inch on her competition.