NEW YORK -- Caroline Wozniacki watched from the sidelines as her longtime friend Serena Williams had her electrifying farewell run at the 2022 US Open. While Williams dazzled the crowd at Arthur Ashe Stadium in her three singles matches, a pregnant and already retired Wozniacki was in the arena and at practice sessions, offering supportive words and cheers.
But while Wozniacki, the former world No. 1 and 2018 Australian Open champion, was happy to be there for Williams, it wasn't what sparked her idea to return to the sport.
"[Her final US Open] was something very special," Wozniacki said on Friday. "But I wasn't really thinking about my own comeback at that point. I was trying to figure out how I'm going to handle two kids."
Her own spark came later. After her son James was born in October, she began casually hitting balls with her dad. It was there, on the court near her house, when she realized she was hitting better than she believed she ever had -- and enjoying it more than ever too. After more than three years away, she knew she wanted to come back.
Now, less than 11 months after James' birth, and a year after Williams' storied career came to a dramatic end, Wozniacki is officially back, feeling the love of the crowd at Ashe herself. On Friday, she came back to defeat American Jennifer Brady 4-6, 6-3, 6-1 in front of a passionate fan base to advance to the fourth round at the US Open. Williams, who gave birth to her second child just last week, watched from home.
The moment wasn't lost on Wozniacki.
"You go out there and you believe in yourself, but to actually be here and playing in Arthur Ashe in front of all of the amazing people in here ... I said this after the last match, but I didn't think I was going to be here again," Wozniacki said during her on-court interview on Friday as those in the stands showered her with an ovation. "When I retired three years ago, when I had my two kids, I thought I would be only watching from the outside, but to be able to play here and now I've won two matches in here, what an honor this is."
The 33-year-old Wozniacki made her return last month at the Canadian Open and recorded one win in two tournaments before arriving in New York. But during the US Open, she's been on fire. A two-time finalist, Wozniacki defeated No. 11 seed and two-time major champion Petra Kvitova in the second round on Ashe on Wednesday and is back into the second week at the tournament for the first time since 2016.
"It's always tough to play Caro, even [though] she didn't play for a few years," Kvitova said after their match. "[It] didn't feel that she was away."
Wozniacki arrived in New York ranked No. 623. She is currently at No. 239 in the live rankings and she would improve almost another 100 spots with a win on Sunday. But she will have to get past world No. 6 Coco Gauff in what will be the biggest test of her comeback. The 19-year-old Gauff won the titles in both Washington D.C. and Cincinnati during the lead-in events and has lost just one match during the summer hard-court swing. Gauff battled back to defeat No. 32 seed Elise Mertens in the third round 3-6, 6-3, 6-0.
Gauff couldn't hide her excitement about the matchup when speaking to the Ashe crowd Friday night.
"A matchup I never thought I would have to play," Gauff said. "When she retired I remember I might've said to her or in an interview, 'I wish I would've played her,' so that wish came true."
The similarities between Wozniacki and Gauff are plentiful. Like Gauff, Wozniacki found success early and cracked the top 10 as an 18-year-old. She also knows all too well the pressure and expectations that come with being a teenage star, and the never-ending "When is she going to win a major?" questions that follow. Wozniacki reached her first US Open final at 19, and now has advanced to the second week of the tournament in three different decades.
Gauff didn't want to call it a battle between generations because "[Wozniacki is] still fit and going strong" but it certainly is a battle between generational talents.
If Wozniacki wins Sunday's showdown, which will undoubtedly be on Ashe, she could potentially set up a quarterfinal clash with world No. 1 and defending champion Iga Swiatek. But Wozniacki certainly wasn't thinking that far ahead on Friday. She sounded most excited about hanging out with her kids and having dinner with family and friends later that evening -- and she said she was focused exclusively on the present.
"I think when you're young, you always look into the future," Wozniacki said. "You have hopes and dreams for what your career is going to look like. For me, coming back now, I don't know how long I'm going to play. I get that question all the time. Am I going to play one year? Am I going to play five years? I have no idea.
"All I know right now is that I'm really enjoying this moment. To be able to play on these big courts in front of a big crowd, it's something very special and something that I will never take for granted, something I'll always appreciate."