Welcome to Clay Chronicles, where wtatennis.com will take a look back at some of the most memorable matches from the clay seasons of the past five years. Up next from Charleston is a back-from-the-brink barnburner between Caroline Wozniacki and Mihaela Buznarnescu in the 2019 third round en route to the Dane’s last career final.
2015: Angelique Kerber def. Madison Keys, final
2016: Sloane Stephens def. Daria Kasatkina, quarterfinal
2017: Jelena Ostapenko def. Mirjana Lucic-Baroni, semifinal
2018: Kiki Bertens def. Madison Keys, semifinal
HOW THEY GOT HERE: Coming into the Volvo Car Open, Caroline Wozniacki was looking to put a rollercoaster 2018 behind her and reset.
It had undoubtedly been the best season of her career, with Wozniacki lifting her long-awaited first Grand Slam title at the Australian Open and returned to the WTA World No.1 ranking. She had also reached a final in Auckland, and lifted two more trophies at Eastbourne and the Premier Mandatory Beijing.
But throughout that season, Wozniacki would later reveal, she was also struggling physically and in pain despite her on court success. After posting a second-round exit at the US Open, the Dane was diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis, a chronic inflammatory disorder that affects the joints.
“I thought it was just the flu,” Wozniacki told press in Singapore at the end of the season. “I go to Washington, knees are hurting, my leg is hurting, and I’m like, ‘Okay, well, just move on.’ And I play in Montreal, and something still doesn’t feel right. I wake up, and I can’t lift my arms over my head.”
By 2019, Wozniacki was adjusting to life with rheumatoid arthritis and looking to get back to her best tennis. Ranked No.13 in the world, the Dane arrived in Charleston seeking her first quarterfinal of the season, after battling past Laura Siegemund in her second-round opener.
WHAT HAPPENED: Wozniacki raised eyebrows when she was spotted on the practice courts with an unexpected addition to her coaching team: the retired French Open champion Francesca Schiavone, temporarily working with the famous father-daughter duo.
Perhaps it was a touch of the Italian’s clay court prowess shining through, but Wozniacki seemed right at home on the green clay from the start. Up against Romania’s Mihaela Buzarnescu, the No.12 seed, the Dane raced ahead to a 3-0 early-break lead.
But the resurgent Buzarnescu, who was coming back after a serious ankle injury, showed her fight to get back in the set, outlasting Wozniacki in a nearly 13-minute game to hold for 4-2, saving three break points in the process. She broke late in the set to get them back on serve at 5-4, but her momentum was short-lived, however, as a spate of errors let Wozniacki break once more to steal the set, 6-4.
The Romanian bounced back in the second set, picking up a crucial break at 2-2, and extending her lead to 4-2. Buzarnescu’s down-the-line shots were doing damage and keeping Wozniacki one step behind, and she closed out the set with a final break to the Dane’s serve to claim the first set of their professional rivalry.
Wozniacki emphatically hit the reset button in the third, starting out with a double break for a daunting 3-0 lead. But Buzarnescu wasn’t done, reeling off three games in a row to get both breaks back to make it 3-3, as a frustrated Wozniacki let miscues fly wide en route to a dead-even final set.
But the former World No.1 amped up her game when she needed to most, crushing crosscourt forehand winners to break for 4-3, then holding at love for 5-3. Finally, the Buzarnescu magic wore off, as Wozniacki dominated with her backhand to reach triple match point. The first chance was converted for the Dane when a Buzarnescu backhand went long.
WHAT THEY SAID: Although Buzarnescu was the risk-taker on the day, with 39 winners and 47 unforced errors, Wozniacki was steadier and had a cleaner ratio, with 26 winners to 22 unforced errors. After the match, she gave a frank assessment of her up-and-down performance.
“I started off aggressively. I played the way I wanted to play,” Wozniacki said. “I could feel the pressure coming from her, so I knew she wasn't going to give up easy, and she played even more aggressively, and things started turning her way a little bit. And I think I got a little bit too defensive but at the same time I couldn't really get the depth on it because she was pressuring me so much.
“In the third set again I got a good start but wasn't really feeling it. Then at 3-3 it was just I have to step in. I have to try and take the ball earlier and I think that paid off a little bit.”
Wozniacki highlighted her mental fortitude during that sixth game of the third set as the key to sealing the victory, staying patient and relying on experience to know when to take her chances.
“I think if you panic, that's when it's done,” she said. “But obviously at 3-3 I lose three games in a row, and I feel like even when I hit good shots she was passing me at the net or things were going her way. And I just took a few deep breaths and I said, okay, we need to start over and just start grinding here.”
WHAT IT MEANT: The victory sent the 2011 Volvo Car Open champion into her first quarterfinal of the season, and was a crucial step on the way to the championship match. Wozniacki went to take down two more seeded players, No.15 Maria Sakkari and No.16 Petra Martic, in straight sets before booking a final clash against Madison Keys.
Her run ended with a battling straight sets defeat to the American, falling 7-6(5), 6-3, but Wozniacki took away a lot of positives - including walking away with a greater love for clay late in her career.
“I grew up playing on clay outdoors, so I kind of knew what to do, and I think I just lost kind of that pattern a little bit once we started playing on hard courts so much,” Wozniacki said. “I think now I’m just starting to realize what I need to do, and I can’t always do it, but I at least have the right path and I can see what I need to work towards.”
By winning the title, Keys also became the 15th different WTA singles title winner, extending the unprecedented streak of different champion that defined the start of the 2019 season.
For Wozniacki, Charleston would be the last singles final of her career, as the Dane later announced her retirement during the 2019 off-season and waved goodbye to tennis at this year's Australian Open. She finished her 15 years of professional tennis with one Grand Slam crown, 30 WTA titles and a peak ranking of World No.1.