Rolling into Dubai as the newly demoted world No. 2, Caroline Wozniacki reacted to her situation in what seems more and more like typical Wozniacki fashion, explaining: "At least I won't get this question over and over again: 'How does it feel to be No. 1 without winning a Grand Slam?' I don't feel a difference (from when I was No. 1). The sun is shining, I'm still playing the same way and I'm still here to compete in the tournament and try to win it. There's absolutely no difference."
The comments, and the attitude underlying them, do very little to advance any burning desire Wozniacki may harbor to take her place among the drama queens of the WTA, but it helped her become the year-end No. 1 for 2010, and I believe it will help her become the No. 1 player once again, as well as a major champion. She might accomplish the former as soon as this week, should she reach the semifinals at Dubai. She moved one match closer to that round today in a bizarre win-by-default over Anna Chakvetadze.
Visibly under the weather, Chakvetadze lost the first set 1-6. Then Wozniacki took her eyes off the prize and began making errors while Chakvetadze, despite her illness, improved her placement and accuracy. But when she served for the second set, Chakvetadze swooned and melted to the court at 15-30, in a pass-out reminscent of Victoria Azarenka's collapse at the U.S. Open last year. Chakvetadze took a full medical time out, during which the trainers checked all her vital signs.
Chakvetadze ultimately made an effort to play on—but quit after playing just one more point when she found herself unable to run, hit, or do any of the other things required by the game. Apparently, her problem was gastro-intenstinal. Let's hope it's not serious. And the default brought Wozniacki within two matches of reclaiming the No. 1 ranking—you know, the one so many people seem to think she does not deserve.
That I find myself defending Wozniacki amuses me, because, truthfully, she isn't the kind of player who does a lot for me. I never was blown away by her game, even when she busted out in a big way in 2009 to become a Grand Slam finalist at the relatively tender age of 19. I don't find her "boring," or deficient, though, those being two of the chargers periodically hurled at her. That someone who's said by many to have a game unworthy of her status is doing so well should tell you that there's something going on that may not meet your eye, or more likely that escapes your eye. So what if nobody ever called Wozniacki "the female Federer"? The purpose of every player's game is to win the last point. Beyond that, it's all aesthetics. And Wozniacki has won lots of last points in the past year-plus.
The personalities of the players we watch also shapes our attitudes toward them. I never felt obliged to ask myself if I was being overly kind or harsh toward Wozniacki because of her personality, or even her looks. She certainly seems like a nice girl, but that's about as far as my opinion in the area of personality and her degree of charisma goes. It's not like the planet is short of nice girls, right?
But I find myself liking Wozniacki more and more as this "Slam-less No. 1" story has unfolded. I'm not just being a contrarian. The notion that she's an undeserving No. 1, a No. 1 by default, is just plain unfair, and taking that position suggests a lack of appreciation of her unique skill set (as well as her competitive character). For players' games are like fingerprints. All of them are different, but you'd never know that just looking at their hands.
Under the current ranking system, calling any No. 1 "undeserving" is a little like saying the number 4 doesn't deserve to be the sum of 2 plus 2. We all know that the "real" 2-plus-2 is 7, right? The very argument is ridiculous. A more worthwhile line of inquiry is just why so many fans are skeptical about Wozniacki's credentials, or don't think she has the game to win majors—in the minds of many, that's an undeclared prerequisite for being No. 1.
When you reach a certain level in tennis, winning a major ceases to be about your game. If you gave Justine Henin a weaker mind or less fierce will, she would have been...Alize Cornet. Forget the "no weapons" criticism, or the "Serena is MIA" theme. The evidence suggests that Wozniacki has Grand Slam chops. But it's been hard to appreciate that because of the way Jelena Jankovic and Dinara Safina inadvertently teamed up to make the WTA world unsafe for Slam-less No. 1 players. And that has nothing to do with Wozniacki's game, her mind or heart.
Jankovic, the year-end No. 1 for 2008, has been one of the great disappointments of the WTA. It pains me to write that because, frankly, I always did admire her game, as well as Jankovic's particular brand of athleticism. There's something interesting and even special about the way she scuttles, crab-like, around a court. And Jankovic has loads of personality. That swoon by Jankovic at the start of 2009 was awful, but understandable. What has been more baffling has been her inability to recover from what might otherwise have been just a career hiccup.
Jankovic surrendered her No. 1 ranking on Feb. 1, 2009, to the winner of the Australian Open, Serena Williams, who would hold it for only 11 weeks before Safina rose to the top to become yet another No. 1 who had yet to win a Grand Slam title. And the way Safina was overpowered in the Wimbledon semifinals a few weeks later by No. 3 seed Venus Williams, 6-1, 6-0, only strengthened the case of the critics. The significance if not the validity of the No. 1 ranking was severly undermined in 2009, and that's something for which Wozniacki has had to pay.
Another Slam-less No. 1? Cue The Who: We Won't Get Fooled Again!
But hold on. While Wozniacki didn't win a major before she earned the No. 1 ranking, that's about all she has in common, thus far, with Jankovic and Safina. Jankovic was closing on the age of 24 when she bagged the top spot, while Safina was a week shy of 23 when she earned it. Wozniacki, by contrast, was just a few months into her 20th year when she hit the top. That's pretty fast work, and pretty good work, for a girl that age. It also bespeaks a consistency that's more likely to develop with age.
With Jankovic and Safina, you could argue that they were in the mix near the top, and it was not until a certain combination of circumstances came together that they were able to bubble to the top. You can't really say that about Wozniacki, simply because she's so young. Her ascent has been steady and predictable, the payoff logical.
How these various women reacted to earning the No. 1 ranking is also telling. Jankovic basically freaked out and scuttled back out of the hot seat as fast as she could, even if there were mitigating circumstances (she claimed she had over-trained over the brief off-season). Whatever the case, she looked nothing like the No. 1 player when she had an opportunity to back up her year-end ranking at the 2009 Australian Open. And that told us a lot.
Safina, to her credit, celebrated her ascent to the top spot with back-to-back finals at Stuttgart and Rome in 2009, losing one (Stuttgart) and winning one. After that, she beat Wozniacki in the final of Madrid, but clearly showed that she couldn't handle Grand Slam pressure by caving to Svetlana Kuznetsova in the Roland Garros final. After the Wimbledon disaster, she came up small—again—at the U.S. Open. She lost a three-set heartbreaker to up-and-coming Petra Kvitova in the third round. The rest, as they say, is history. Long before her back gave out, her guts gave out, at least at majors.
It's been the other way around so far with Wozniacki. She got off to a lousy start this year and looked for all the world like a surfire early-round upset victim at the Australian Open. But she went and made the semifinals, and was within one swing of the racket from the final. That's not a bad tournament. In fact, with the exception of that first Grand Slam final appearance in New York in 2009, Wozniacki played her best major after she had the No. 1 ranking in hand. Nobody can say that her lofty position gave her the jitters.
Over the past two years, Wozniacki has emerged as a reliable, steady, hard-working pro. She has an even temperament and a great knack for winning tennis matches with a game that can best be described as understated. She hasn't had any sort of meltdown, technical, mental or emotional. She deserves better than to be thought of as a default No. 1 and I think she'll prove that over time.