Friday, December 17, 2010

2011 Preview: "The Final Seduction of Miss Caroline Wozniacki"

As the 2010 season began, she was "The Princess of the Charm, with a side of harm." One year later, she's the #1-ranked player in the world. But will the "seduction" of Caroline Wozniacki finally include a grand slam championship in 2011?

"She is a bright, young, smart and charismatic star." So said WTA Chairwoman and CEO Stacey Allaster of Caroline Wozniacki in the waning days of the 2010 season.

It's hard to argue with the tour head's words, for in a relatively short span of time the 20-year old Dane has rounded into a capable, welcoming and worthy attraction at all stops around the world. The tour could do far worse than having this particularly charming blonde act as a spokesperson for and be the face of the women's game for years to come. But having her develop into something more -- a resilient champion -- is just as important. More, really.

It'll also require a potentially more difficult transition than the one that has seen her rise from just outside the Top 10 at the end of the 2008 season to atop the tour's rankings by the end of two years later. While Wozniacki has maneuvered her way into a power position within the WTA's framework, it's up to her to now mold herself into a player fully worthy of everything that comes with such responsibility.

Call if the "final seduction" of Miss Caroline Wozniacki.

While Allaster surely believed her complimentary words concerning Wozniacki, it is still hard to escape the notion that she was also fulfilling her own "unofficial" role as the tour's leading promoter/defender and doing all she could to deflect some of the undue criticism that had been recently pointed in the tour and Wozniacki's direction when it came to whether or not the Dane should be sitting atop the rankings. For for all of Wozniacki's many accomplishments this past season -- she led the tour in nearly every important statistical category when it came to winning matches -- the one thing that she failed to do was grab a grand slam title (or even reach what would have been her second career slam final). After failing to carry her North American momentum to a U.S. Open title, as Wozniacki rose into the top ranking position in the season's closing weeks, she quickly become a focal point of snarky tennis commentary, as every discussion of her feat was obliged to be accompanied by a note about what she HADN'T done, and what that meant in broader terms for all of women's tennis.

Unfortunately, in the eyes of (too) many now, but far more (as it should be) in the future, her lack of a slam crown is really the only stat "with legs." In fact, ultimately, the perceived "success" of Wozniacki's tennis lifetime will rest upon her filling that rather significant hole in her still-under-construction tennis resume. If she never wins one, her lack of a major title (see Elena Dementieva) will virtually define her career. Her top goal must be to do all that she can to change that path in 2011. Thing is, it won't be easy. Even if she does everything right.

Over the course of the past eighteen months, Wozniacki has managed to fashion herself into the most reliable, week in and week out player on the WTA tour. "Consistency" has become her middle name. No player has won more titles or matches, nor has another matched her current string of six straight Round of 16-or-better results in slams. Such workwomanlike abilities has allowed her to rise from the role of "ingenue" in a supporting role on the tour landscape to that of one of its "leading ladies." But, even with the #1 ranking in hand, she has not yet morphed into the "best" player in the world, with or without Serena Williams being factored in the mix. There is still work to be done, and room to improve her game and lead her detractors, hand-in-hand, into extinction.

Of Wozniacki's '10 slam losses, none were "good outs," as, without the opportunity for her father/coach to kick-start her between sets via a scheduled on-court coaching session, she fell behind early, never found her way into the match, and exited with rarely more than a whimper, winning no more than seven games in any of the four straight sets losses.

Wozniacki is not "there" yet, and she knows it. That's the good news.

Over the course of last season, even as she played through an injury-hampered stretch in the spring, Wozniacki worked hard to do what she does best -- work things out. By the end of the year, her aim to play with more aggressive were apparent in the season-ending championships in Doha. There, after falling behind early against Kim Clijsters in the final, she managed to work her way back into the match. But while her improved in-point instincts were often correct (sneaking in to attempt to put away a volley, moving forward trying to get more on top of her forehand and win a point off the ground with a well-timed winner rather than outlast Clijsters in a long point every time out) it was her execution of her chosen shots that often let her down. While her serve has improved, it's still not the weapon it can and needs to be in order for her to be able to be as consistently successful against the big-hitting Top 10 players as she is against the rest of the WTA field.

In a sense, it's probably advantageous that her surge back against Clijsters didn't result in a title, as her loss provided another clue about what is still missing from her tennis. Her endeavors to get into better shape immediately after Wimbledon proved her willingness to work, and the gradual improvements in her game have shown her ability to accept and incorporate new ideas into her approach. In a sense, she's moving in the correct direction when it comes to winning "the war," but her game is still not in a place where it can be relied upon to win the biggest battles against the best players on a consistent basis.

But Wozniacki understands that her quest is more akin to a steady long-distance race than a 100-meter sprint, even if the voice of those who don't will only get louder over the coming year if she once again fails to find herself the last woman standing at one of the season's four biggest tournaments. "I feel like I'm at a very high level and can beat anyone," she said late in the season, but "if (winning a slam) doesn't happen next year, I'm still young and have a lot of years ahead of me."

She's right -- she's the second-youngest player currently ranked in the Top 40, though the comfort she's so far shown in her #1 skin surely disguises that fact. Very much in opposition to recent #1's such as Ana Ivanovic and Dinara Safina, who saw their fortunes dip once they rose to the top of the rankings, Wozniacki's excitement and ease in the spotlight is an extremely encouraging sign that her progress will continue even in the more pressurized position in which she now finds herself.

It IS too early to fret. But now is not the time for Wozniacki to think that she needn't focus all her attention on reaching attainable career-long goals as early as during the 2011 season, especially with Serena Williams' second surgery on her injured foot meaning that the five-time Oz champion will miss the Australian Open in January. In fact, a good case could be made that her best shot at a slam title in '11 might come right out of the gate in Melbourne. Clijsters has been a dominating force on North American hard courts, while Justine Henin will be taking another shot at glory on red clay. The Williams sisters, no matter their current health, will always be favored on the grass. Down Under, though, the opportunity for a breakthrough could be at hand and, as was the case in New York, getting the "slam question" out of the way as quickly as possible would erase it as a point of contention from there on out. Wozniacki failed to take matters into her own hands in New York, but she'll soon have a second chance.

If she fails to immediately seize it, she might find herself in a very similar situation twelve months from now. In 2011, Wozniacki could be a better player than in '10, but still not win a slam. But she would arguably have had a "better" season if she loses the #1 ranking and wins fewer titles, but manages to claim her first slam along the way.

In many ways, the current offseason and 2011 present Wozniacki with her own seduction. Will she be content to enjoy the spoils of her recent success (she's expressed a desire to emulate Anna Kournikova), or work even harder to consolidate and build upon it, choosing to embody her #1 ranking in mind, body and spirit... and take the chance on doing something greater in the upcoming season? There are pitfalls in possibly doing TOO much (see Jelena Jankovic's wrongheaded decision to bulk up two offseasons ago), but with great risk often comes great reward. Wozniacki is comfortable playing an offshoot of her defensive-minded game, but it remains to be seen whether it will ever be enough to get her over the grand slam hump. Unless she makes a concerted effort to modify her approach more quickly than the steady-as-she goes alteration schedule she's so far employed, there's a good chance that she won't in 2011, either. It wouldn't mean that she'd NEVER win a slam, just that she might not to be ready to win one NOW.

But as she's said herself, she has many years to reach her goals. At least, she hopes so.

If the Dane's on-court slam success can ever match her off-court ease in the spotlight, she could have it all. Nothing should be more desirous for a tennis player than winning a major championship and following through on an athletic journey, but the sport is virtually littered with players whose career paths walked right up to the line of something more, only to be turned away without attaining ultimate success. Which player will Wozniacki turn out to be?

Let the "seduction" begin.

**WTA LEADERS - 2008-10**
9...Serena Williams
8...Elena Dementieva
7...Jelena Jankovic
7...Dinara Safina
7...Venus Williams
16...Vera Zvonareva
15...Dinara Safina
13...Elena Dementieva
12...Serena Williams
12...Venus Williams
28...Elena Dementieva
21...Vera Zvonareva
20...Flavia Pennetta
19...Jelena Jankovic
19...Dinara Safina
19...Serena Williams
[Match Wins]
152...Flavia Pennetta
150...Elena Dementieva
147...Vera Zvonareva
146...Jelena Jankovic

All for now.

2011 Preview Series Links: 'Twas the Backspin Before Christmas, Prediction Blowout.

STILL TO COME: The Intriguing 100 (with '10 first-timer predictions) & 1Q Preview (w/ Week 1 Picks)


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