Rain, Drought and Determination
 
Toronto rain frequently delayed Caroline Wozniacki's Rogers Cup quarterfinal on Friday against World No. 1 Karolina Pliskova. The notion of having to wait to finally achieve something neatly fit Wozniacki's tennis life, but the image of rain in the midst of summer, nourishing living things in a vast area, is not congruent with Wozniacki's journey.

Droughts pervade sports. In tennis, Andy Murray recently ended several British droughts which eclipsed 75 years. In American sports, the city of Cleveland won its first major professional championship since 1964 last year, when the Cavaliers won the NBA Finals. In soccer, Portugal won its first European Championship crown in 2016 with its improbable run in France. In baseball, 2016 marked the Chicago Cubs' first World Series title in 108 years.

Caroline Wozniacki hasn't had to wait 108 years to win a first major, but her path in tennis might as well feel like it. 

Wozniacki learned how to be a very good tennis player early in her career, putting her ahead of most of her peers but -- as is often the case with success -- creating unique obstacles she had to learn to live with.

She was -- and still occasionally is -- unfairly savaged for being a "slam-less No. 1." Yes, it always feels better when a No. 1 player can point to a major trophy, but the achievement of gaining No. 1 is enormous regardless of circumstance. It is best to break through with the grand fanfare of a championship, but not every massive feat in life is (or can be) accompanied by 30 trumpets, a thunderous organ, and high mass in an ornate and stately cathedral. Wozniacki, like others before her -- and like the person she defeated in Toronto, Karolina Pliskova -- ought to receive no criticism for being a major-free No. 1, but that's not the world we live in. Wozniacki had to bear that burden, becoming a classic embodiment of someone who was a victim of her own success.

Wozniacki's decade, which started so well, fell into deep ditches, amplifying the voices of her critics and heightening the sense that she would never find the cathartic championship which still eludes her today. Yet, her resurgent 2014 U.S. Open -- in which her energy increased and her vibrance on court became more pronounced -- gave credence to the idea that if she could JUST make a hardcourt major semifinal with a softer draw (at least one without that woman named Serena, who defeated her in that 2014 U.S. Open final), that one blessed moment could still occur.

This is the nagging, frustrating -- sometimes haunting -- component of droughts in any sport: Over an extended period of time, teams or athletes who knock on the door of success figure to catch at least one moment when results break in the right direction. Think of Roger Federer, who has constantly knocked on the door at majors over the past three years and finally crossed the threshold after what (for him) was a long drought of five years. He kept giving himself chances, and at last, he found a moment of magic (in Australia) and then got perfect draw luck (at Wimbledon).

The stinging pain and oppressive weight of a sports drought emerge in the fact that the "one moment" never comes for the player (or team) who keeps giving herself (or himself) opportunities.

Wozniacki is not the most powerful player on tour, and her height often works against her (though it helps her in other ways, specifically by enabling her to not have to bend as much for shots, compared to Pliskova), but her tennis chops are considerable.

Wozniacki has been a thorn in the side of Svetlana Kuznetsova, a player who -- akin to Grigor Dimitrov or Philipp Kohlschreiber -- can hit every kind of ball, with various spins or angles that many monochromatic hitters can't match. It is illuminating that Wozniacki's responsive, reactive game can so effectively blunt a thoroughly skilled opponent who has won two majors. 

Speaking of being a thorn in the side, Wozniacki has added -- powerfully -- to the idea that she is Pliskova's nemesis. She lost a tough first set in the Miami semifinals... and then rolled in the last two sets, 1 and 1. In this rematch in Toronto, Wozniacki trailed 5-1 but then won the next six games to steal the first set. As soon as that set ended, it would have been entirely understandable for Pliskova to lose heart. Yet, for much of this well-played and closely contested match, Pliskova showed the fighting qualities, volleying skills and situational resilience which have marked her transformation from obscure searcher to elite player. Overcoming that first set marked the height of that ruggedness, but when the top seed took a 4-2 lead in the third set, her work wasn't done. 

This part of tennis makes the sport such a magnificent and complete test of the individual athlete: A player can spend roughly two hours (as Pliskova did in this roughly three-hour match) climbing back from a deficit, but when finally leading after all that work, the task of playing well doesn't stop.

Phrased differently: Tennis is not a sport in which one side can run out the clock or simply keep the ball away from the other. Tennis's wonderfully dialogic dynamic will always give trailing players a chance... and force leading players to finish the job.

It was at this point -- 4-2 in the third -- when Pliskova, admirably able to shrug off that first set, allowed herself to relent to a small but real degree. Wozniacki stepped into that void like the superb competitor she is. After a run of four straight games, the Dane had once again foiled Pliskova late in a 2017 WTA tournament of appreciable significance.

No, this result doesn't change everything for the U.S. Open. In a broader view, this was a quality match. One player narrowly beat another. This was no choke by Pliskova. Wozniacki earned her comeback. However, it seems an equivalent misread to say this result means nothing.

If Wozniacki ended the spring hardcourt season in good form, this result reaffirmed her credentials and confidence on cement. Meanwhile, Pliskova -- also searching for that "one moment" in her career -- must now deal with another mental obstacle. She is capable of surmounting it, but her task in New York did become more arduous.

Wozniacki's win recalls memories of September in 2014, reaffirming the idea that yes, she can have her day... the day Flavia Pennetta had at a much older (tennis) age in 2015 in Flushing Meadows. 

Will that "one moment" arrive for Wozniacki? We can only wait and watch. The importance of Friday's win in Canada? A player who easily could have lost faith in the face of a drought has instead found ways to keep her career well nourished and relevant.

Maybe the rain wasn't incongruent with Wozniacki's career after all.