Love-all in sport’s big match between Rory McIlroy and Caroline Wozniacki
Last updated June 22 2013 1:01AM
The Danish tennis star Caroline Wozniacki plays caddie to her boyfriend of two years, the golf prodigy Rory McIlroy
Andrew Redington/Getty Images
The spartan players’ restaurant at Eastbourne’s Devonshire Park is far removed from their millionaire pads on the promenade at Monaco or in Palm Beach Gardens, Florida. But it is the very down-to-earthness of Caroline Wozniacki and Rory McIlroy that makes it all feel so right.
This is the superstar sporting pair Piers Morgan has been desperate to get on to his CNN talk show; Hello! magazine’s bosses would have an attack of the vapours if they were here now but sport’s big love match are true to a promise made a year ago that they would sit and talk one day, and this is the day.
According to those critical of their relationship, the fact that Wozniacki is ranked only No 9 in the world of women’s tennis and McIlroy is No 2 in golf is because they are so smitten with each other. They have taken their collective eye off the ball.
“There are always people that want to talk and make a story,” Wozniacki, 22, says. “The thing is when Rory was winning everything last year I was the lucky charm. He misses a cut and all of a sudden I’m a bad person.
“It has nothing to do with that. I’m so pleased he’s here, he’s a great support and there are so few people who know exactly how it is to feel and be in the position I am in and have been in. Rory is young, he’s been No 1, he’s won many tournaments. You don’t find many people who can relate to it.”
McIlroy, the Northern Irishman who won the 2011 US Open and the US PGA Championship last year, said: “Everyone knows how it feels to be in love and want to make something work. That’s where we are.”
Asked for their recollection of events and how they met — who said hello to whom — they giggle, they interrupt, they get a little red-faced. I ask how they became attracted to each other. It all goes back to the 2010 US Open at Flushing Meadows, New York, when McIlroy was a guest of the ATP (the governing body of men’s tennis) and was introduced to Benito Perez-Barbadillo, the public relations manager for Rafael Nadal, who said the tennis star wanted to meet McIlroy.
Wozniacki, of Denmark, was playing Carly Gullickson of the United States at that night’s session. McIlroy said: “I said, I remember her getting to the final last year. I like her, tight black dress, whatever. It was midnight before they started. She won 6-0, 6-1 and it was the first time I saw her in real life. My caddie will tell you I went on about her for three weeks. I admired her from afar, then I went to Wimbledon ladies’ quarter-final day.
“I was invited into the royal box and it was supposed to be her versus Maria [Sharapova] and I thought, ‘Oh perfect’. And she wasn’t playing.”
Wozniacki had lost to Dominika Cibulkova of Slovakia in the fourth round. “I should have won, I had a break in the third and took Hawk-eye at deuce and made a mistake and, anyway, I lost,” she said. “We get to Saturday and it’s the Wladimir Klitschko/David Haye world heavyweight title fight [in Hamburg, Germany] and because I know Klitschko and his manager, I had been invited but said I couldn’t go because it was the second week of Wimbledon.
“But I had lost, I was at a friend’s place by the pool and she said they were going to go to the fight. By 1pm I’m on a flight to Hamburg with no hotel, nothing and what should I do? I get to the fight a bit late. I’m walking down the stairs and I saw Rory. I knew about him, I follow different sports.”
Wozniacki: “He is in the third row staring and I thought he was staring at someone behind me and literally he couldn’t stop looking at me (McIlroy pulls his cap down again). He has a pretty dark-haired girl on his left and a friend on the other side. I’m thinking it’s pretty rude when he has his girlfriend with him.
“I sit down next to Klitschko’s manager in the front row. I look around and can still feel him staring at me, so I say, OK I’m going to go and introduce myself since he’s looking at me. I say, ‘I’m Caroline and I’d like to say congratulations for the US Open’, and it turns out the girl is the girlfriend of Carl Froch [the boxer]. Rory says, ‘Oh my God, can I have a picture with you?’.”
McIlroy (laughing): “I didn’t say Oh my God. I just said, ‘Can we have a picture’.” Wozniacki: “So it is our first picture together.” McIlroy was due back at Wimbledon on Sunday for a royal box seat to watch the men’s final. It was his intention to have an early night for an 8.30am flight.
“I said, ‘Well I follow you in Twitter so I can send you a direct message and let you know if we’re going to do anything [later]. And she said well, take my number if you want — if I want!”
“We said goodbye at the end of the fight and I said I’d send her a text to tell her what we were getting up to. My phone died, so back at my hotel I’m looking for a charger anywhere, I need to text her, I need to text her. I said we were probably going to go out and I said I’m staying in this hotel and why don’t you swing by.”
There were five people for one taxi, and couldn’t all fit in, so Rory and Caroline went ahead. “As we got into the bar they wouldn’t let any more people in and the three guys with me were trying to get in and I said well, I’m obviously . . . they left me to it,” McIlroy says.
“We found a table in the corner, ordered a drink and hardly touched it and we talked for four hours and the next thing I know a guy taps me on the shoulder and I said, ‘What’s up?’ and we realised it was light outside and we had no idea. I flew back to London and at every change of ends of the Wimbledon final, I was going into the toilet and texting Caroline and then back to watch the tennis. Two years later we are together, in love and in a great place.”
She is the driven one: unrelenting on the practice court. Yet he is the epitome of someone who has a gift and, if not taking it for granted, knows it. “Since meeting Caroline I’ve had a renewed desire to work hard,” he says. “I always felt I was a pretty hard worker in comparison to other golfers and then I saw Caroline practise, how she goes about her profession and how dedicated she is and it made me think I can work that little bit harder.”
“We’re different,” Wozniacki, still striving for her grand slam breakthrough, adds. “If I say something, I’m going to get it done. I’m very pushy and Rory is laid back. He makes a mistake and ‘oh it’s OK’ whereas I am going to kill something until I get it done perfectly.”
To which McIlroy concurs: “Bob Rotella wrote a book called Golf Is Not A Game Of Perfect, one I remember well. It’s not about that, it’s about how good your bad shots are, that’s how I look at it. Not everything has to be perfect, it’s just got to be better than everyone else’s bad.”
A rally ensues . . .
Wozniacki: “Even if you feel like you are hitting the ball well, there are so many things you just want to talk about like ‘what should we do to feel that bit better out there?’ or you lose a match or you miss the cut and that’s when you want to have someone there who knows how it feels. We share.”
McIlroy: “It’s nice to have someone who knows what it feels like to have a crap day on the course or on the court and a good day, too. Talking about your good feeling makes them stick and you remember it a bit easier.
Wozniacki: “I do give him stick because I was No 1 longer than he was.
McIlroy: “But that US Open trophy is sitting next to our TV at home.”
“He is the No 2 [behind Tiger Woods],” says Wozniacki. “And he is complaining that he didn’t shoot ten under and I say “Seriously Rory, look at where you are [he pulls his cap a little lower]. Y]ou’re playing unbelievable, the world’s No 2 golfer, you’ve been No 1, there are like millions of people playing golf and you are complaining.
“I call him Champ. Being No 1 is such an unbelievable feeling and I think it’s important to remind him about it. We are so focused on doing our thing that we forget.”
“It’s obviously easier to enjoy it when you’re playing well,” chips in McIlroy.
“But it will always go up and down,” counters his girlfriend. “To be in this position is our dream and why not work hard now and relax later? I can relax earlier than Rory can because he doesn’t retire for another 30 years.
“As for our relationship, I guess if you really want something, it’s not that difficult to make it work. Obviously it takes planning and effort but if you really want, it works out.”
McIlroy says his schedule is easier to manipulate than that of his girlfriend.
“I can make my schedule fit Caroline’s. The longest [time spent apart] recently was three weeks and that’s the longest we would want to spend apart.”