America likes to fancy itself the land of second chances. Show some humility. Work hard. A new you, or perhaps a better version of the old you, is just around the corner.
So perhaps it’s fitting that comebacks have featured so prominently in the first days of the U.S. Open. Some have gone well — Caroline Wozniacki, Elina Svitolina, Stan Wawrinka, Jennifer Brady. Others — Venus Williams, who suffered an opening night drubbing — not so much.
What binds them together though, is the seemingly irresistible pull of a sport and a life that so many players complain about but ultimately struggle to say goodbye to, knowing that once the door locks completely, as it does for everyone eventually, there is no way to unlock the pathway to the international glamour, fame and money of their former life.
“It’s the competition,” said Brady, 28, who is rediscovering her form following two injury-plagued and mentally grueling year. “You just can’t replicate it.”
That’s not all. On Thursday, there was the 38-year-old Wawrinka in the fading light of Court 17, which is a kind of tennis bullring, rolling back the years to a time before foot surgeries seemed to spell the end. He had just dispatched Tomas Etcheverry, who is 14 years his junior in four gritty sets, rallying the capacity crowd of 2,800 which had been screaming for him all afternoon. He stirred them like an orchestra conductor, urging each bank of stands to get louder to earn their post-match, souvenir ball.
“I like the emotion I get from tennis,” Wawrinka said later. “I also know the day I stop I will never find those emotions anywhere.”
Friday afternoon’s third round delivered a tense, three-set battle between dueling comeback stories, as Wozniacki, 33, a former world No. 1 playing her first Grand Slam following a three-year, two-pregnancy retirement, outlasted Brady.
It was the second time in three days that Wozniacki had found the old magic in Arthur Ashe Stadium, where she had her breakout run to the her first Grand Slam final 14 years ago. On Wednesday, she topped an old rival and two-time Wimbledon champion, Petra Kvitova, in two tight sets under the lights. On Friday, she came back from a set down against Brady, an Australian Open finalist in 2021, winning 12 of the final 14 games. She said three years ago she never thought she would be competing on this court again, much less winning.
“What an honor this is,” she said Friday.
It is fitting that Wawrinka and Wozniacki are clicking once more here. This is the tournament where Jimmy Connors went on his storied run to the semifinals in 1991 when he was 39. It’s where, in 2009, Kim Clijsters, took a wild-card entry and in just her second tournament back after a two-year break won the singles title.
The enduring image of that night was Clijsters’s toddler daughter running across the court during the trophy ceremony. Her opponent in that final — Wozniacki.
If ever there was a player that seemed done for good, Wozniacki was it.
She had been playing almost her entire life. She had fulfilled her childhood dreams of reaching the top of the rankings and in 2018 winning a Grand Slam tournament title at the Australian Open. She had won $35 million in prize money and earned tens of millions more in endorsements.
When Wozniacki left the sport in 2020, she had spent the previous two years battling rheumatoid arthritis, a chronic inflammatory disease that sometimes left her joints so swollen she struggled to get out of bed. She and her husband, David Lee, a retired N.B.A. player, were raising their two children in Florida, and Wozniacki had become a mainstay of tennis television commentary.
The Wozniacki’s have always been an intense sports family. Her father played soccer for Denmark and Poland and her mother played volleyball for Poland. For Wozniacki, a fitness freak, tennis was a profession but also a cardio workout. But she did not play for so long during her temporary retirement that when the day arrived that she wanted to hit some balls she had no idea where her rackets were.
The ball started coming off her strings as soundly as she felt it ever had.
“I realized that, yes, I love playing tennis,” she said. “I love to play the game, I’m very passionate about it, and I want to be the best I possibly can be.”
Pretty soon she was floating the idea of a comeback to her father, who has always been her coach, and her husband, who essentially said, ‘why not, you only live once.’ Now here she is in New York, with the kids in tow, taking her 3-year-old daughter, Olivia, to a park near her hotel in the morning, and competing for one of the biggest titles in the sport in the afternoon and evening. On off days she has been going to museums.
“Pretty cool that I get to live my passion and be a mom and kind of wear many hats,” she said Friday after yet another win in a Grand Slam after so many years of them.
There are, of course, different ways to go about a comeback. Svitolina, who is from Ukraine and like Wozniacki had a child last year, tried to remain fit through her pregnancy. Then she spent three months after childbirth reworking her game with a new coach, Raemon Sluiter.
She played a series of smaller tournaments in the spring as she prepared for top-level tennis and set few expectations for immediate success, especially given how much energy she was spending raising money for relief efforts in Ukraine. In June, Svitolina made the quarterfinals of the French Open and in July she made the semifinals of Wimbledon. She and her husband, Gael Monfils, have left their daughter at home in Europe.
Wozniacki, on the other hand, took the go-big-or-go-home approach, beginning her comeback at the two big U.S. Open tuneup tournaments in Montreal and outside Cincinnati, then playing the year’s final Grand Slam with just three post-comeback matches. She wrote in Vogue that she believed she could win the U.S. Open.
Ultimately, most of the best tennis players come to understand that they are not simply athletes but also performers and entertainers. Once they make that leap, they begin to draw energy not just from the act of competing but also the feedback loop experienced by doing the thing they have done from the time they were very small, to the exclusion of nearly any other pursuit, in front of thousands of people.
It becomes a kind of drug, and the fix isn’t available from simply playing a few friendly sets in a quiet park. Anyone can do that.
“I love playing in front of a big crowd,” Wozniacki said Friday. “I love playing on the big stadiums. That’s exciting to me. That’s why I’m still playing. It’s a great feeling.”