Special Report: Wimbledon
Polish Diaspora Fills Women’s Top Ranks
Published: June 19, 2009
The primary languages of the women’s tennis tour — English, Spanish and French — have been joined in recent years by Russian and Chinese.
But there is a new language making inroads on the practice courts and in player restaurants and even in the later rounds of important tournaments: Polish.
“It’s good to not all the time have to speak in English on the tour,” said the Polish star Agnieszka Radwanska, 20. “It’s good to get the chance to speak your own language; it makes you more comfortable.”
The 11th-ranked Radwanska, Poland’s biggest tennis star since Wojtek Fibak in the 1970s and ’80s, has plenty of opportunity these days. And not just because her younger sister, Urszula, 18, who was also a Wimbledon junior champion, has been making progress and is now 71st in the world.
There is also an expanding group of players of Polish origin who are making a significant impact, led by Caroline Wozniacki of Denmark, Aleksandra Wozniak of Canada and Sabine Lisicki of Germany.
All three are the Polish-speaking daughters of first-generation Polish immigrants. “We all hang out,” Wozniak said. “It’s a good connection.”
All three are in the top 50 in the world, with Wozniacki, 18, leading the way at No. 9 and Wozniak, 21, at a career-high ranking of 23 after her surprise run to the fourth round of the French Open.
No wonder fan sites tracking the Polish tennis diaspora have begun to emerge on the Web. There have been others worth tracking of late, too, including Olivia Rogowska, an Australian teenager who is the daughter of Polish immigrants, who reached the second round in Paris this year after receiving a wild card.
“I think the immigrant mentality is a powerful thing,” Wozniak said by telephone from Eastbourne, England, this week. “They are people who will do anything to achieve their dreams. They have this very strong desire to accomplish goals. They are perfectionist and work hard, because of this mentality. I know, because I have it, and I know how much I never want to give up.”
Though she looked overwhelmed by the occasion in Paris when she lost to Serena Williams on center court in the fourth round, Wozniak has quickly recovered her cool and rhythm. In Eastbourne, she upset Svetlana Kuznetsova, the new French Open champion, in two lopsided sets and had a semifinal date with Wozniacki on Friday.
Wozniacki and Wozniak, whose similar surnames have long been a source of confusion in the junior and now senior ranks, are both the children of former Polish soccer players. Wozniacki’s father played professionally in Poland and Denmark, which explains how his daughter happened to become Denmark’s first truly world-class women’s tennis player. Her mother played volleyball for the Polish national team.
Wozniak’s father also played soccer professionally in Poland before immigrating to Montreal in 1983 with his wife and their first daughter, Dorota, who would become a top junior in Canada and later played tennis for San Diego State University.
Aleksandra was born in Montreal but has made several visits to Poland.
“We live in a different world,” she said. “I was born in Montreal, but definitely I was growing up Polish. So I feel pretty much I have a strong connection to my Polish heritage. But I feel Canadian and definitely am proud of being a Canadian and representing the country all over the world in a sport where there are not many Canadians anymore.”
Lisicki, a 19-year-old born in Germany, has followed a more established path to her world ranking of 43. For the last several years she has trained regularly with her father as her coach at the Bollettieri Tennis Academy in Florida.
Fibak, an entrepreneur and art collector, now does occasional tennis commentary for Polish television. For him, Agnieszka Radwanska is the new Martina Hingis. She is “a natural mover who understands the geometry of the court,” he said. Wozniacki is in the same vein as Maria Sharapova, he said, not because of her recent shoulder problems but because “she’s hitting so hard off both wings.” Lisicki, for Fibak, “moves and hits like Kim Clijsters,” the former world No. 1 from Belgium.