NEW YORK — Caroline Wozniacki has been to the top before. The desire to return there is driving her comeback after three years of retirement, which included having two children.
Coco Gauff is trying to get to where Wozniacki has been. Many feel she’s on the precipice, and, in fact, could capture her first major this week in New York.
That background set up what was probably the most anticipated match of the U.S. Open so far — Sunday’s fourth-round match pitting Gauff, 19, against Wozniacki, 33, the former world No. 1 who is a two-time finalist here (2009 and 2014) and had impressed through the first three rounds.
To be clear, Gauff, the No. 6 seed, was the significant favorite, with a 78 percent chance of winning, according to the IBM match insights. But Wozniacki gave her all she could handle, and it took three sets for the youngster to pull through, advancing to the quarterfinals with a 6-3, 3-6, 6-1 victory.
The match took a dramatic turn early in the third set. Wozniacki, who took advantage of a mistake-prone Gauff in winning the second set, broke her to open the third. Instead of putting on more pressure, though, she allowed Gauff to seize control. Gauff reeled off six straight games to win for the 15th time in 16 matches since losing in the first round at Wimbledon.
“I did lose that second set off of a lot of errors, to be honest,” Gauff said. “I was trying to tell myself just to be ready to play an extra ball because she’s a player when you think you win the point, it’s not over. I was telling myself to be ready for another ball to come back.”
In the quarterfinals, Gauff will face No. 20 seed Jelena Ostapenko, who upset world No. 1 Iga Świątek in three sets later Sunday. Ostapenko beat Gauff in the fourth round at the Australian Open earlier this year, their only meeting since 2019.
“Jelena, she’s a ball striker,” Gauff said. “She’s hot or cold, to be honest. … I might get some more free points from her, maybe not. Maybe she’ll hit many winners.”
Gauff will probably have to find an extra gear if she is to make it into the semifinals. She was tagged with 44 unforced errors to just 27 for Wozniacki on Sunday, and although she had more winners — 33-14 — Gauff routinely had to fight off break points to hold serve. She saved seven of 10 break points against.
“There’s things that I think I could do better on the serve,” Gauff said. “The return games I did pretty well. I think I could have handled my service games a lot better. … In that second set, I had a lot of short balls and just errors. I think I needed to go for bigger targets.”
As for Wozniacki, regardless of the defeat, her run was impressive, as she was playing in her first major since the 2020 Australian Open and just her third tournament since she picked up a racket again. On her way to the fourth round, she defeated No. 11 seed Petra Kvitova in the second round and American Jennifer Brady in the third round.
“Obviously, I’m disappointed that I wanted to make it further into the tournament, but all in all, I think I put up a good display this week in general,” Wozniacki said. “I played pretty well throughout, consistently. I think there’s a lot of things I can take away with me from playing a Slam. I beat some great players along the way.
“Today, Coco played just a little bit better than me. You can see why she’s been playing so consistently well the last couple of months. I think she really stepped up when it mattered.”
Wozniacki played two tournaments this year prior to the U.S. Open, both in August. She lost in the second round in Montreal and dropped her first-round match in Cincinnati. Her first match here was just her fourth since losing to Ons Jabeur in the third round in Melbourne more than 3 1/2 years ago.
“I wanted to see with these three events that I came back and played this year where I was tennis-wise, physically and everything else. I’ve learned a lot from that,” she said. “I’m exactly where I want to be. There’s still a few things that I want to work on and I can do better, but in general, I think it’s very positive. Every event that I played, I played a little bit better. In every match here, I played a little bit better each time. A lot of positives I can bring with me.”
Wozniacki, who was an analyst for Tennis Channel and ESPN after retirement, suggested that Gauff is playing as complete a game as she ever has in her young career.
“I think Coco, over the last month and a half, ever since after Wimbledon, she’s not scared to hit through her forehand, which she has been in the past,” Wozniacki said. “I think she’s getting more depth on it and a little bit more rotation. I think that’s why she’s obviously winning more on a consistent basis. … I feel like right now, it’s all coming together for her.”
Gauff said: “I definitely think this tournament I’ve been winning the matches off of being the aggressor. Today that showed that I can play aggressive, and I know that that’s probably when I play my best tennis.”
Coco Gauff, with a charged crowd on her side, kicks off U.S. Open with a tense win
(Top photo: Matthew Stockman / Getty Images)