A Career in Free-fall? Where Did it All Go Wrong for Caroline Wozniacki?

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The match stats told much of the story: 22 unforced errors; 4 winners.

Caroline Wozniacki limped out of the US Open in the first round, losing to the unheralded Irina-Cameila Begu, 6-2, 6-2. She looked devastated as she shook hands with her Romanian opponent, but, professional as ever, endured the usual questions at her post-match press conference, trotting out answers similar to those she has given throughout 2012. “It’s disappointing to lose, but that’s tennis. You just have to move on. I still have plenty of years left to play, so hopefully I can do better in the future.”

Her optimistic outlook belied what must have been a crushing disappointment, the latest in a year that has seen a series of difficult losses and setbacks. Wozniacki, or “Caro” as she is affectionately known on the WTA tour, began the year as the world’s top-ranked player. Yes, there were legitimate questions surrounding her ascent to the pinnacle of the world rankings, the most common being: how can she be number one when she hasn’t won a grand slam? Many others accused her of merely taking advantage of a “soft period” in the women’s game, playing a schedule jam-packed with lesser tournaments and accumulating enough points to climb the rankings. It is true that Serena Williams was injured, Maria Sharapova had yet to cement her return to the very top of the game, and other stars of Wozniacki’s generation, such as Victoria Azarenka, Petra Kvitova and Agnieszka Radwanska, had not yet found the consistency to match their talent. Deep down, Wozniacki’s biggest fans and close followers of tennis might have expected her ranking to drop in 2012. A place in the top 5 would have been entirely respectable, and a fair testament to the strengths of her consistent, defensive game.

But after the US Open, Wozniacki tumbled out of the top ten. How can a player who was ranked number one in January have fallen so far, so fast? A closer look at her results throughout 2012 reveals a player not necessarily in decline, but definitely suffering a severe crisis of confidence.

At the Australian Open eight months ago, few expected Wozniacki to beat Kim Clijsters in the quarter-finals. The Belgian, having announced her retirement, was seen as too determined, too powerful an opponent for Wozniacki. Although the Dane put up a decent fight in the second set, pushing the defending champion to a tie-break, she eventually fell in straight sets. This loss was not unexpected, and played into the familiar narrative: Wozniacki played too defensively; she has to add more weapons to her game; she needs to develop her serve and forehand.

Moving onto the Middle East, she suffered her first surprising loss of the year, to Lucie Safarova in Doha. This was the first major indication of Wozniacki’s faltering confidence: she stayed with her opponent until the very end of the third set, but lacked the conviction to go for her shots in the tie-break. This was followed up with a respectable semi-final appearance in Dubai, but although she played rising German (and bête-noire) Julia Goerges very close, Wozniacki’s “winner” tally was distinctly low. Even more worryingly, her defensive groundstrokes, which routinely fell within inches of the baseline in 2010 and 2011, were dropping short, providing fodder for offensive-minded players such as Goerges.

The Tour then moved to Indian Wells, and Caro suffered a thoroughly demoralising straight sets defeat to Ana Ivanovic, whom she had beaten just a couple of weeks previously. Wozniacki appeared particularly despondent after this match, as though aware that she was losing that vital spark of self-belief that is essential to winning. Almost a quarter of the way through the season, she had done little to prove that she was still a relevant force in the game.

In Miami, however, she played something approaching her best tennis, and her run to the semi-finals of the tournament featured a career-high win over the mighty Serena Williams. The American was perhaps not at her best, but Wozniacki played steadily, cleverly, moving her legendary opponent around the court and, more importantly, pulling the trigger on her shots when she had the upper hand in a rally. In her next match, a close three-set loss to Maria Sharapova, the Dane was visibly – and audibly – angered by a dubious line call towards the end of the third set, but this was proof positive that she truly believed she could win that kind of high-profile match. She may have failed to reach the final of another tournament, but there were encouraging signs of progress, and hopes that the recent flat play was nothing more than a blip.

Clay courts are not Wozniacki’s favourite. While it is true that the surface blunts the power of bombastic top players such as Sharapova and Azarenka, it also robs counter-punchers of the pace they need in order to return their opponents’ shots with interest. While this suggests why Wozniacki does not produce her best tennis at this time of year, it does not fully explain the extent of losses to the likes of Angelique Kerber (against whom she won only three games in Stuttgart) and Kaia Kanepi. The latter match, played in the third round of the French Open, featured an almost-remarkable comeback by Wozniacki, pushing the Estonian to a third set after being two breaks of serve down in the second. Crucially, however, she did not maintain her momentum. The lack of confidence was clear for all to see: Caro did not trust herself to push harder on the big points. The spike in fortunes in Miami remained the highlight of her year so far.

By Wimbledon, Wozniacki was no longer featuring in pundits’ list of title contenders, or even featuring that much at all in discussions about top players. Her press conferences became more sparsely attended, as though even reporters were reluctant to witness firsthand the erosion of belief in a player who, a mere six months earlier, beamed with confidence and pride at her position atop the world rankings. It was perhaps ironic, then, that Wozniacki actually played one of her best matches of the year in her first-round defeat. Against Austrian Tamira Paszek, a top 40 player who performs exceptionally well on grass, she played to her strengths: making her opponent run, changing pace and direction at the right times, and waiting for the opportunity to close out the rally. It was an exceptionally high quality contest that could easily have ended with the Dane as the victor, but it was not to be. Wozniacki left SW19 bitterly disappointed, taking few positives from her promising performance. She rebounded to an extent in her next tournament, playing to her seeding at the London Olympics by reaching the quarter-finals, but she would have expected a lot more than winning a paltry three games against Serena.

It was during the American hard court season in 2010 that Wozniacki shone, winning titles in Toronto and New Haven and entering the US Open as the number one seed. In 2012, she forged an encouraging path to the semi-finals in Canada, pushing Petra Kvitova to three sets. Again, fans hoped that Caro had turned a corner, once more beating the players she was supposed to beat and giving herself a chance to defeat the game’s best at the “business end” of major tournaments. The glow of a positive result was short-lived, however, as a third round loss to Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova was the disappointing Cincinnati sequel. Wozniacki entered New Haven, an event she had won every year since 2008, desperately searching for a lift before the final grand slam of the season. She won three matches to reach the semi-finals and appeared to be playing reasonably well again, but she had to retire after suffering serious pain in her knee.

In the context of her disappointing year, and the recent injury, a first-round defeat at the US Open was not altogether shocking. And yet it represented a new nadir for Wozniacki. A regular in the top ten since she was a teenager, she now finds herself outside this elite group for he first time in years. Fans of the Dane, and Caro herself, must be wondering about the next step. While it would be asking a lot to see her reach the world number one spot again, many believe that she merits a place in the top five, and should regularly be reaching the latter rounds of major events.

Regaining form and confidence will not be an easy feat, but it is by no means impossible. For all the talk surrounding her relationship with Rory McIlroy and whether it is distracting her from tennis, Wozniacki is far from dispassionate about her sport. She is fiercely competitive, and however poorly she plays in a match, never “checks out” mentally and always strives to win. Her partnership with new coach Thomas Johansson is still in its early stages, and the break enforced by her early US Open loss could allow her to regroup and reassess. It will still be a tall order for her to reach the season-ending championships in Istanbul in October, but a climb back up the rankings in 2013 will be made easier by having fewer points to defend.

It is still far too early to say if Wozniacki will suffer a decline similar to that of recent world number ones Ana Ivanovic, Jelena Jankovic and Dinara Safina. Even in this most underwhelming of seasons, she has demonstrated outstanding defensive skills, exquisite footwork and, occasionally, a willingness to move towards the net. She has shown glimpses of why she reached the top of the game. She now needs to prove that she belongs there.

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