The WTA's saviors: Caroline Wozniacki, Yanina Wickmayer
By Douglas Perry, The Oregonian
February 03, 2010, 5:01AM
The women’s game is in trouble. The Australian Open featured two grizzled, been-there-done-that veterans in the final and two semifinalists who really shouldn’t have a prayer of ever winning a major. I mean no disrespect to China’s Li Na and Zheng Jie, who deserve kudos for their dogged games and the Final Four results that came from them. But both punched above their weight in Australia; an in-form Kim Clijsters or Maria Sharapova or Dinara Safina or Venus Williams, etc., will always run them right off the court and up into the third row. The problem is that the top women aren't in form often enough, and especially not when it matters. As I’ve stated before, a healthy WTA wouldn’t produce, back to back, a U.S. Open champion (Clijsters) and an Australian Open finalist (Justine Henin) who were retired from the game just a couple of months before their two-week Grand Slam runs. If women's professional tennis wants to continue to be taken seriously, something's got to change.
So what do we do to save the WTA from itself? We must direct our best wishes to the next generation. It’s time to give up on the Never-Should-Have-Beens (Ana Ivanovic, Jelena Jankovic) and Should-Have-Beens-But-Weren’ts (Safina, Elena Dementieva, Nicole Vaidisova) and put our hopes in some true Might-Yet-Be players who can reignite enthusiasm in the tour (and, oh yeah, consistently play top-notch tennis).
There are a number of promising possibilities, but I will focus on two telegenic women who are currently knocking on the door of Grand Slamdom: Denmark’s Caroline Wozniacki and Belgium’s Yanina Wickmayer, who faced off against each other in last year’s U.S. Open semifinals.
We’ll start with Wozniacki, who pushed herself into the final of that U.S. Open. Her crafty, arrhythmic game reminds me of late-’90s Martina Hingis. In 2006, weary of watching the Marcos Baghdatis-Rafael Nadal semifinal on the big screen outside Wimbledon's Centre Court, I wandered over to the outside courts and stumbled upon the junior girl’s final. There Wozniacki was, poking at Slovakia’s Magdalena Rybarikova like a snotty little brother, smiling all the while. When Rybarikova would curse and throw down her racket in frustration, Wozniacki’s smile only widened. It was still the first set, but it was the smile of a champion. (Sure enough, Wozniacki won the match.)
The knock on the 19-year-old is that she doesn’t have the big shot that can hurt you. This deficiency in Wozniacki’s game is obvious enough, but it’s also been overstated. Wozniacki is 5’ 10” and sturdily built. Her passive, ball-chasing game is a holdover from her juniors career rather than a Michael Chang-like physical necessity. She’s managed to get into the Top Five with that retriever style, and she’s starting to figure out that if she wants to make that last big jump into Serena Land then she’s got to step in and mash the ball.
Perhaps the best reason for plumping for Wozniacki is that she doesn’t suffer from the great, debilitating disease that’s currently ravaging the WTA: Choke-itis. This is one Dane who is blissfully free of indecision. She knows what she wants to do out there and she executes, even in the most trying situations.
The same can be said for Yanina Wickmayer. She dropped out of the clear blue sky last fall to reach the U.S. Open semifinals, but that was no fluke. A little over a week ago, heading into her fourth-round Australian Open match against Henin, I wrote: "She has all the physical tools to make the leap [into the Top Five]. With her long, tensile limbs, her quick feet and her throw-down-the-gauntlet attitude, this 20-year-old is a champion in embryo. It's that last attribute that is most important." I insisted that by the end of the year she would be ranked higher than her countrywomen Justine Henin and Kim Clijsters.
Despite her three-set loss to Henin, I stick by those words. Wickmayer seems like a very nice young woman -- as long as you stay on her good side. She could have, perhaps should have, won that fourth-round match in Melbourne. Which is not to say that she choked. Henin is a great champion and she came up big when she needed to. Wickmayer no doubt took notes. She’s a big, rangy, natural athlete. She’s still quite a ways from reaching her potential, but she’s heading in the right direction -- and fast. Next time she and Henin meet, Wickmayer will be carrying a mallet.
With a little luck, this will be the Year of Dubya -- Wozniacki and Wickmayer. I give the Dane a decent shot at Roland Garros, and I look to Wickmayer to make a serious run at Wimbledon or the U.S. Open. The WTA had better hope I’m right.
-- Douglas Perry