Sweet Caroline: Wozniacki determined to be the best
By Tom Perrotta - Tuesday, March 8, 2011
Don't let Caroline Wozniacki’s winning smile fool you. This gritty competitor is determined to be the best.
Caroline Wozniacki’s breakout 2010 season left most people talking about all the things she wasn’t. A prodigy. Feared. Revolutionary. A champion. She didn’t have a signature shot, or a style that would rewrite the textbooks of technique. Steffi Graf gave women’s tennis a new forehand. Monica Seles perfected the two-handed attack. Serena Williams redefined power. Caroline Wozniacki wasn’t going to do any of those things.
For those who didn’t like what they saw in Wozniacki in 2010, it’s time to reconsider. Forget, for a minute, what Caroline Wozniacki isn’t, and consider what she is. Gritty. Smart. Determined. Tough. Oh, and one more thing: the future. Women’s tennis has had a recent run of less-than-spectacular top-ranked players, bearers of false hope like Jelena Jankovic and Dinara Safina. Wozniacki, 20 years old and improving rapidly, is poised to break that cycle—and stay at the top for years to come. She’s not another fake No. 1. The closer one looks at Wozniacki, the more potential one sees.
“She’s very solid mentally, and that’s where others who have reached the top haven’t been able to handle the expectations,” Tracy Austin says. “I think she’s going to be able to sustain the top level for a long time.”
Austin watched Wozniacki mature up close. It was last summer in Montreal, where rain backed up the tournament and forced Wozniacki to play her semifinal and final on the same day. Austin was impressed that Wozniacki won both matches and captured the first top-level title of her career. But she was more impressed by how Wozniacki did it. She served harder. She went for sharper angles. She took more chances, yet kept her mistakes to a minimum. Wozniacki is seen as a safe player, even a pusher. Yet people sometimes don’t want to recognize that safe is smart—and that aggression can be learned.
“She doesn’t have big shots like the way Kim Clijsters does, but she can develop them,” Mary Carillo says. “She’s got great natural power. When she beefs up her serve, I think it will change an awful lot.”
Wozniacki’s spirit, though, is her greatest asset. Sven Groeneveld, the Adidas coach who often advises Wozniacki, became acquainted with it in 2006, when Adidas asked him to scout the young Wozniacki. Earlier that summer, she had won junior Wimbledon and she was a favorite to do the same at the US Open. Instead, she was defaulted for an audible obscenity during her first match. Wozniacki still remembers that day. “I was mad at myself, then I said something to the linesman like, ‘Take your glasses off because you can’t see,’” she says. “I guess that was rude enough for them to kick me off the court. I knew it wasn’t nicely said, but I didn’t feel like it was enough for them to kick me off the court. I’m a competitor and I like to behave well. I was very disappointed in the whole situation and in myself.”
Groeneveld had a different reaction. Here was a superb athlete with solid strokes and no reputation for nasty behavior—and now she was showing that she had heart. “She still has a lot of punch in her,” he says. “You have to love the game; you have to love what you do. You have to want to improve. She’s got that. She’s not up-and-down emotionally.”
Groeneveld stresses this last detail: “This is where her father played a huge role.”
Pride of Denmark
Denmark, population 5.5 million, is hardly a tennis haven. Kenneth Carlsen, the best player in the nation’s history, holds a dubious distinction: He played 46 Grand Slam events in his career and lost in the first round 30 times. Despite good facilities, programs, club teams and players, Denmark had never produced a champion—until Piotr Wozniacki moved there from Poland.
Piotr and his wife, Anna, were both professional athletes. Anna played volleyball; Piotr was a soccer star who signed with a club in Odense in the ’80s. They have two children, Caroline and her older brother, Patrik, who plays pro soccer for a club in Denmark.
Piotr’s story is a familiar one in tennis. He wasn’t a strong player. He didn’t know anything about technique. In this way, he was no different from Karolj Seles or Richard Williams or Stefano Capriati or Yuri Sharapov. Piotr had one advantage: He knew the pressures of being a professional athlete. In tennis, technique is vastly overrated. No one would consider it wise to play tennis like Monica Seles. She didn’t win with technique, but with tactics and will. From the beginning, Piotr set out to turn his daughter into a competitor first, and a tennis player second. Caroline was eager to learn.
“The summer when I was 8, I trained every day for three or four hours a day against the wall because I wanted to get better,” Wozniacki says. “My parents and my brother were playing on the courts and they didn’t want to play with me because I wasn’t good enough.” A year later, her parents were no match for her. The next year, she defeated her then 14-year-old brother, too. “He broke his racquets and he never played tennis again,” she says, laughing. “It wasn’t fun for him being 14 and losing to his 10-year-old sister.” Other boys in Denmark soon knew the feeling. At 14, Wozniacki won the Danish national women’s championships, open to women of all ages. From that point on, she mostly played against advanced boys and coaches.
Rather than send his daughter to a tennis academy, Piotr picked up bits of advice from local pros. One of them was Morten Christensen, a former pro who in 2002 was Denmark’s head national coach, working out of the Danish national tennis center. Wozniacki was a talent the likes of which Christensen had never seen.
“She was almost better than the 16 and 18-year-old girls when she was 11,” he says. Wozniacki’s family was willing to move closer to Copenhagen, which had the best players and the national tennis center. But Christensen had to bend a few rules to spend as much time with Wozniacki as he liked. At the time, coaches in the national center were not allowed to train children under 15 because the center was funded, in part, by the national Olympic Committee. So Christensen invited Wozniacki as a guest—a guest who showed up all the time.
“It was a ridiculous rule,” he says, adding that it has since been changed. “When I think of how she approached the game when she was 11 years old, I still don’t see anyone at 16 or 17 with the intensity she had.”
Christensen later traveled with Wozniacki to tournaments. His last trip with her was in 2006 to Wimbledon, where she had won the junior title. He was always happy to help, but knew that Wozniacki’s father would continue to lead the way.
“I think what her dad is very good at is the parting between being a dad and being a coach,” Mortensen says. “They have their work, but there are a lot of soft moments there.”
When asked about her relationship with her father, Wozniacki says the bond is so strong that she couldn’t learn from anyone else. Yes, they fight on occasion—“like anyone else,” she says—and no, they don’t always agree about what she ought to do on court and off of it. They haven’t had a disagreement yet that they haven’t been able to talk through.
“My dad, he knows me the best,” she says. “We grew up together with tennis. He doesn’t know much about technique, but he knows a lot of other things about the tactics, how I am as a person, what I can do. He’s very good at telling me things in a way that I understand.”
Rich—But a Champ?
At the end of 2010, Wozniacki was the richest female tennis player to never win a Grand Slam title. She earned an estimated $9 million in prize money, appearance fees and endorsements. She added Turkish Airlines, Proactiv skincare and Motive Pure (a sports drink) to her portfolio at the start of 2011 and switched from Babolat to Yonex (a four-year deal). She could easily take home between $11 million and $12 million this year.
The money opens up Wozniacki for attack by some critics of women’s tennis who see the sport as more about marketing than winning, and who see the ranking system as a sham. Mary Carillo says Wozniacki deserves better.
“She looked fitter to me in the second half of the year, and she’s clearly taking a lot of steps to win a major,” Carillo says. “And then the fact that she supports the tour more than anyone else is held against her? That’s a bum deal.”
Wozniacki doesn’t seem to worry about the criticism. She says she feels no pressure as the No. 1, for the simple reason that she got there a lot sooner than she thought she would. “Tennis is a big part of my life, for sure, but it’s not everything,” she says. “I trained to reach this goal, and I reached it and it’s important to enjoy it. If I’m very disappointed after I lost a match, my dad asks me, ‘OK, what happened today? You only lost a match, no one dies, you still have tomorrow, there’s another tournament next week. If you beat everyone, that would be boring and you wouldn’t have the motivation to practice.’”
As a child, Wozniacki had three tennis role models: Martina Hingis, Monica Seles and Anna Kournikova. At 20, Seles was out of tennis after being stabbed in the back. She already had eight major titles to her name, but would win just one more. Hingis had won five major titles but could no longer handle the power of women like the Williams sisters and Lindsay Davenport. Three seasons later, she would retire. Kournikova, a Wimbledon semifinalist at 16, played six Grand Slam singles matches after her 20th birthday. She lost five of them.
One can see traits of all these players in Wozniacki. Seles’ athletic build and determination. Hingis’ mind for angles and tactics. Kournikova’s good looks, but also her (often forgotten) obsession with the game
, before injuries wrecked her career. What everyone wants to know about Wozniacki is, which model is she most like? And when are we going to know for sure? The women’s game is in holding pattern—the Williams sisters are on their way out, and no one seems ready to replace them—and tennis fans want to know who’s next. Wozniacki believes she’ll grow into the role. She just asks for a little patience.
“I’m only 20 years old,” she says. “I can still do more.”
Originally published in the March 2011 issue of TENNIS.