February 20, 2011

In Defense of Caroline Wozniacki

Unless you've been living under a tennis rock the last week, you must have heard by now that come Monday Caroline Wozniacki will regain her #1 ranking. If you have been living under a tennis rock you might have missed the fact that she ever lost it. And the twenty year old will continue to be confronted with the same question that has been dogging her for months -- should you be ranked at the top of your sport if you have never won a Grand Slam title?

We've seen this phenomenon a few times recently, and maybe that's why the critics are so vocal. Players like Jelena Jankovic and Dinara Safina failed to deliver after they climbed the league tables, with the Russian falling out of the top hundred earlier this year. But go back a few more years, and you have an example that (ironically) supports the case for Caroline -- Kim Clijsters rose to #1 a full two years before her first U.S. Open title.

Still it's a tough position to be in. Wozniacki largely racked up the points that earned her position last summer when she claimed titles at Copenhagen, Montreal and New Haven on her way to New York, the first Major at which she was seeded #1 thanks of course to the withdrawal of an injured Serena Williams. Detractors complained she was only winning smaller tournaments, not standing up to the toughest players on the biggest stages, and when she finally climbed into the top spot a few weeks and two additional trophies later, those critics became even louder.

What they've failed to notice is how Caroline's game was improving steadily over the course of these tournaments. On her home soil in August the best player she had to beat was world #41 Julia Goerges. But even though she didn't repeat her run to the U.S. Open final, she did score an easy win over former champion Maria Sharapova on the way to the semis. She faced tough tests for the titles at premier evens in Tokyo -- Victoria Azarenka, Elena Dementieva -- and Beijing -- Ana Ivanovic, Vera Zvonareva -- too. She finally took a set from Kim Clijsters in the year-end championships in the Doha finals and had a solid run to the semis in Melbourne, now having made at least the fourth round of every Slam in almost two years -- not bad for a girl still unable to legally drink in the U.S. You can't deny that she gets more balls back than most of the women on Tour, and now as she develops her serve, her net game and her forehand, she's become more aggressive against the toughest players.

This week in Dubai, Wozniacki was able to put her new skills on display and added another feather to her cap. Though she was saved from an early round against Paris champ Petra Kvitova -- incidentally the woman who beat Clijsters in that final days after she regained the #1 ranking -- she did face challenges from talented Shahar Peer, who was out-powered start to finish in the quarters, and Jelena Jankovic, who led 5-2 in the first set of the semis before Caro hit her stride.

Against a resurgent Svetlana Kuznetsova in the finals, I thought the Dane could face trouble. Wozniacki led the pair's head-to-head by the slimmest of margins, but the two-time Major champion who has never been ranked #1 in the world had been playing, as is often her style, well above her ranking. Kuznetsova was just seeded at the Championships but got revenge over Francesca Schiavone for that heartbreaking loss in the Australian Open fourth round and was solid against both Aggie Radwanska and Flavia Pennetta to make the finals.

But despite the potential challenge from the more experienced player -- Sveta's thirteen career championships was only one more than Caro's but she'd been in eleven more finals -- Wozniacki was unstoppable. She struck first in the match, getting a break in just the second game and didn't allow Kuznetsova to hold until midway through the second set. She took advantage of an inordinate number of errors from her opponent, and capitalized on weak serving to run off with an early lead. The last two games of the match probably featured the best quality tennis, but despite a late surge from the Russian, who denied Caroline a chance to serve for the title, after just over an hour, it was Wozniacki who held the trophy.

Though she retook the #1 position a few days back, following it up with a premier title in Dubai -- something Clijsters could not accomplish last week -- should go a ways in mollifying Wozniacki's critics. She's showing off her consistency and upping her game at the bigger events. At just twenty years of age, she has plenty of time to bring home the Major, and with a game suitable to most surfaces she has a couple choices of which one it will be.

I don't know if Caroline will get the big win this year -- I'll be happy if she just continues to advance in the draws for now -- but it will come sometime soon, I feel. And then hopefully she'll finally get the respect she deserves.

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