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Caroline Wozniacki vs. Petra Kvitova at U.S. Open isn’t just a blast from the past

Caroline Wozniacki won her first match at the U.S. Open in four years Monday night. (Clive Brunskill/Getty Images)
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NEW YORK — Let’s turn away from the youths who have been crowned the future of tennis for just a moment, if we could. They’ll still be here tomorrow, with their sprightly joints and bagless eyes and frankly annoying speed. During an impassioned speech to the umpire about the slow pace of her 35-year-old opponent’s play in the U.S. Open’s first round Monday night, 19-year-old Coco Gauff countered the official’s willingness to let Laura Siegemund sit after a long game by shooting back, “Tennis is about endurance.” Easy for her to say.

Let’s instead bask in the comforting glow of a pair of, egad, 33-year-olds who will face off Wednesday in the second round in something of a throwback match — one that, six years or so ago, might have been a Grand Slam final.

Those would be 2018 Australian Open champion and former world No. 1 Caroline Wozniacki and two-time Wimbledon champion and former world No. 2 Petra Kvitova, longtime competitors with a history friendly enough to have had a genial chat in the locker room Sunday after they bumped into each other in the city.

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Neither, in her pretournament focus and veteran nonchalance, had bothered to look at the draw. Neither realized they were on a collision course even after they figured out they were playing on roughly the same schedule.

“We talked about each other’s [first-round] opponents,” Wozniacki said. “She was like, ‘It’s so cool to see you back!’ ”

This summer, Wozniacki joined the growing population of women who have come out of retirement after giving birth to restart their athletic careers. The Dane retired in 2020 after holding the top ranking for 71 weeks in her career, piling up 30 WTA titles, one Grand Slam trophy and two appearances in the final here. She had been diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis in 2018 and cited the immense effort it took to manage her illness as a reason for leaving the sport.

After giving birth to daughter Olivia in 2021 and son James in 2022, Wozniacki stayed involved in tennis by doing commentary for ESPN and Tennis Channel. The urge to pick up her racket again came soon after her son’s birth in October, when she took up tennis as a way to regain her fitness. Wozniacki also had been a dedicated runner at points in her career, finishing the 2014 New York City Marathon in 3 hours 26 minutes 33 seconds despite some unorthodox training methods.

Her hitting felt as good as ever, and her arthritis is under control. After a conversation with her family, she decided to go for it. Picking up legends matches at Grand Slams, which pit former champions against each other, and practicing with the many tennis pros she calls neighbors in Monaco were some of the first steps of her comeback.

Wozniacki officially returned to the court in Montreal this month after a 3½-year break between professional matches. She defeated Tatiana Prozorova in the first round here Monday after being afforded a wild card into the U.S. Open draw.

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“I kind of figured something was about to happen when I played with her at the French Open — we played legends together,” said Kim Clijsters, who won three of her four major titles, including two U.S. Open championships, after giving birth to a daughter. “I was like, ‘Yeah, she’s practicing for more than just playing legends.’ … Being a professional athlete, it takes hours a day to be committed, and it’s a lifestyle. For me, it was sometimes kind of hard to balance that, knowing that you have to push that mother instinct aside at times.”

Wozniacki is hardly the only one in the locker room juggling individual ambition with family responsibility. The U.S. Open began with 10 mothers in the draw, should she need to ask anyone for advice. On Monday, she felt largely butterfly-free after waiting all day to play a night match and telling her recently tennis-obsessed toddler daughter no, she could not go to work with Mom.

She won’t need pointers on Kvitova’s game.

Wozniacki and Kvitova have met in 14 matches since 2009. Most of them were weighty: They played a fourth-round match at Wimbledon; a second-round match at the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Olympics; in five WTA 1000-level tournaments, the tier directly below the major tournaments; and in three WTA year-end championships. Memorably, Wozniacki defeated the Czech to earn the No. 1 ranking in Beijing in 2010.

“I know exactly what I need to do. I know where my game needs to be at to beat Petra,” Wozniacki said. “There’s definitely a calmness to knowing that. At the same time, I’m playing someone who obviously plays very well.”

Kvitova certainly will be a stiff opponent for her old rival, who looked at ease Monday night en route to a 6-3, 6-2 win over Prozorova. Wozniacki won the first match of her comeback against a qualifier in Montreal but lost the two matches she has played since against players in the top 50. Kvitova is ranked No. 11; earlier in 2023, she reentered the top 10 for the first time since 2021 after picking up titles in Miami and Berlin. She defeated Cristina Bucsa, 6-1, 7-6 (7-5), in the first round here.

“I got to play better next match to beat her,” Wozniacki said Monday, “but so does she.”

Playing her first U.S. Open match in four years Monday, the Dane was touched to compete at Louis Armstrong Stadium, one of the show courts. On Wednesday, she’ll get an upgrade when she and Kvitova walk into Arthur Ashe Stadium for the last match in prime time as the tournament lauds two former Grand Slam champions, both very much still a part of tennis’s present.