The undisputed... winner
Source : Steve Tignor from tennis.com
Caroline Wozniacki may soon be the No. 1 player in the world. If she does claim that semi-desirable position, we’ll be forced again to enter the murky existential zone where we try to decide what “No. 1” actually means, now that it’s no longer synonymous with “the best.” I don’t think anyone has come up with a satisfactory answer, except to say that Wozniacki, who didn’t reach the final of any major in 2010, will have done exactly what it takes to reach that spot: She’ll have earned the most ranking points of anyone in the last 12 months. She has played a lot of matches and has been a steady winner of them, two things that the computer likes. It’s just that the computer ain’t what it used to be, back when the players who were clearly the best—Chris, Martina, Steffi, Monica—made being No. 1 part of their identity. Serena Williams, the current top player in the world, doesn’t; she values being, say, the Wimbledon champion much more than what the computer tells her she is. In large part because of that, the Slams rule on the women’s side now, even more so than among the men. Without a prestigious series of events of its own that the players recognize and respect enough to gear up for, like the ATP’s Masters 1000s, the WTA and its Roadmap will continue to stand deep in the shadows of the majors.
What No. 1 means in the immediate future, and how much we should value it, may never be answered. But just because Wozniacki could soon have that dubious distinction doesn’t mean we can’t appreciate her game. We don’t have to focus only on what she can’t do, or how she pales in comparison to Serena. Watching her over the past year, my opinion of Wozniacki’s game has evolved. Last season, if you would have asked me if I enjoyed watching her play, I would likely have said no: I thought she was too safe, too colorless, too rote, too practical and conservative to capture the interest of even the most dedicated tennis fan. Three matches in 2010 have changed my view.
First I watched Wozniacki from up close on a side court at Indian Wells against Jie Zheng. The Chinese woman is a tough and pesky competitor, but Wozniacki was tougher. Her game was more physical, and her manner haughty—in the good haughty entitled way of a great player—than it appeared to be from far off. In other words, she wasn’t as safe and dull as I’d thought.
Then I watched her beat Maria Sharapova at the U.S. Open, with a subtle and smart game that, while it relied at its core on consistency, was nuanced at the edges. Wozniacki knew when to put a little more juice on the ball, when to throw in a moonball, when to go big on the first serve, and when to just shovel the ball back down the middle one more time. It wasn’t exciting, per se, but it rewarded the close attention of anyone interested in how someone goes about winning a tennis match.
That was even more true, I thought, of Wozniacki’s performance in the final this weekend in Tokyo. She was out-hit badly through the first set by Elena Dementieva, who appeared to have the one thing that Wozniacki doesn’t, the one thing that has kept her from going farther at the majors: the ability to pop the ball past her opponent from a neutral position on the baseline. The truth seemed to be out: Wozniacki can’t hang with the game’s best ball-strikers when they’re clicking.
The truth lasted for seven games. The trickiest part of winning an easy first set is keeping the momentum going through the first two or three games of the second, when you must start from scratch score-wise. Dementieva couldn’t do it. And she couldn’t do it because Wozniacki found a way to trip her up, to subtly take her out of the game that had been working so well. At 1-1, down 40-0, Wozniacki came up with one of her first winners of the day. It seemed like an innocuous point at the time, but it gave her just enough momentum of her own to begin to take the ball a tiny bit earlier, move up in the court a few inches, and change the direction of the ball a little more frequently. Suddenly, she was up 3-1 and the down-the-winners that Dementieva had been making were sailing just wide. Wozniacki’s game branched out from there. At 4-2, she cut under a neat little crosscourt touch shot at the net, and she broke Dementieva’s serve again with the help of a swinging forehand volley winner.
There are shades of the other No. 1 in the world, Rafael Nadal, in Wozniacki. Neither of them cave in even when the score looks extremely bleak in a particular game or set; part of their game plan is to out-work their opponents, and they don’t stop thinking that way when they’re behind. Each has a hard core of baseline consistency that’s augmented by surprising flourishes: At first glance, you wouldn’t expect either Nadal or Wozniacki to win with touch shots around the net, but they do. Each of them is also very good at gauging when to change the direction of the ball. Going crosscourt nine times out of 10 may seem boring or one-dimensional, but from a tactical standpoint, it makes the one time they don’t go crosscourt that much more surprising and effective.
Case in point. At 3-3 in the third, Wozniacki reached break point. She wasn’t playing brilliantly, but she was doing what she does best: hanging around and making life as difficult as possible for her opponent. On break point, Wozniacki worked the ball crosscourt with her backhand, cutting the angle a little shorter and moving Dementieva a little farther off court with each stroke. When she got a look at a ball inside the baseline, she didn’t hesitate. Wozniacki rifled her backhand up the line for a winner and the break. Two games later, Dementieva’s body and spirit looked broken, Wozniacki had another title, and she’d taken another step toward No. 1.
She isn't the best player, but Wozniacki makes a fine standard-bearer for the game. She won’t appeal to fans of fearsome power-hitters like Serena or Maria, or versatile athletes such as Justine or Kim, or even campy head cases like Vera or Sveta. But like Rafael Nadal, Wozniacki’s court smarts and self-awareness will reward patient viewers and students of the sport. No matter what its ultimate value, being No. 1 means that you win a lot. A player who knows how to do that will always be worth watching, and praising.
Some interesting points though the comparison between Rafa and Caro...