The No. 1 Thing

Tuesday, January 10, 2012 /by

by Bobby Chintapalli

The WTA’s No. 1 story this week is that No. 1 story we’ve heard for months now. With the top ranking on the line—Petra Kvitova will dethrone Caroline Wozniacki if she wins Sydney this week—I jotted down some percolating thoughts. The upshot: A change at the top would be the best thing for everyone right now, but Wozniacki—and her ranking—deserve more respect than they’ve gotten lately.

Of course, Caroline Wozniacki wants to win a Slam.

Say Wozniacki doesn’t yet have the weapons to win a Slam, and that’s fine. Say she doesn’t really want to win one, and that’s not. Subconsciously at least, critics seem to believe it’s partly why she hasn’t won one.

Wozniacki may not show she’s upgrading her game enough to win seven matches in Melbourne. But changes don’t come easily, not when she’s in the spotlight and usually winning, or they’re not always apparent. That doesn’t mean she’s not trying to make them.

While a visibly fitter Wozniacki didn’t dazzle with major improvements at Hopman Cup, you could see forceful returns and other nice, new touches in her much-anticipated match against Kvitova, who she played closer than many expected.

As for Wozniacki not yapping away about the need for changes and the desire for a Slam, perhaps through tears in some reality TV confession booth, why should she? So she says things like, “Since I’m No. 1, I must do something right.” So what? She doesn’t need a corporate guru telling her what got her here won’t get her there. We know it, she knows it. But why would a world-class athlete continuously talk about deficiencies (or dreams) in the face of loud, incessant criticism? We don’t expect that from top-notch fighters like Maria Sharapova and Kim Clijsters, and we shouldn’t expect it from a top-notch fighter like Caroline Wozniacki.

At this point in her career she needs to tweak her schedule to peak at Slams, no matter the money or relationships at stake. That’s true. But everyone can do some things better, and hopefully Wozniacki will work on her scheduling challenges.

Everyone loves No. 1.

Some think Wozniacki should focus on Slam No. 1 and forget about the No. 1 ranking, as if it’s much ado about nothing. But every player wants to be at the top. Ask Roberta Vinci. She said in Auckland her dream is to be No. 1 and after that she won’t mind if the world explodes. It was a joke, but you know what they say about jokes.

And ranking is the main way Marion Bartoli will assess her success this year. Last month, just before she wrapped up preseason training at home in Switzerland and prepared to leave for the heat of Australia, I asked the mathematically-inclined Bartoli what numbers she’d look at come December. She didn’t mention number of Slam wins or titles. She’ll consider 2012 a success if she ends it ranked 6, 7 or 8. (It would qualify her for the year-end championships and be a “realistic goal.”)

Kvitova regularly says her goal is improvement, not ranking. She has a good head on her shoulders, and I’m sure she mostly means it. But how do you measure improvement? We know, as she does, that ranking is one quick and dirty way. Plus, after winning Hopman Cup, she said, “I’m going tomorrow to Sydney and you know every single week it’s a new chance to win some points and some matches.” She added that she must focus on her game, not points. But she brought up points, and who can blame her? Who doesn’t want to move up, especially if up is No. 1?

Even for Serena Williams, who at her best is the best, the top spot means something. What else could explain this reaction? You’d think she won three Olympic medals or put a beatdown on Maria Sharapova and Justine Henin combined, not that she won a U.S. Open semifinal against Wozniacki, a friend but one who happens to be world No. 1.

In some ways it’s been a good reign.

When you look past the Slamlessness—and you should at this point—you can see Wozniacki’s been a capable top (young) gun. If Slams were awarded based on off-court abilities, she’d have a few by now.

“She’s an amazing ambassador for women’s tennis,” said WTA CEO Stacey Allaster when I talked to her for a Wozniacki profile last April. “She’s hardworking, never gives up and is a very intelligent and warm person.” Allaster praised Wozniacki’s respect for fans, business partners, sponsors and media. She believes it “comes from within” but also from the “excellent” team around her, especially “parents who support her, encourage her, let her be independent.” Allaster also spoke of how No. 1 players over the years have been different and how that makes sport “so fantastic.” Justine Henin was a very private person focused on “performance performance.” Wozniacki “opens herself up.”

Which is likely a good thing for the tour in this Internet age, with its insatiable appetite for everything, from wisdom and depth to bite-sized chunks of sensationalist quotes taken out of context and other inanities packaged just so.

Sure, Wozniacki can be a bit much sometimes. We could do without the miscellaneous antics in interview rooms worldwide and public displays of affection set against the backdrop of the Yale football team. But when people say she tries too hard, I disagree. It’s partly that she can’t escape the limelight, even when she tries. And partly that she’s 21. Have you checked the Facebook wall of a 21-year-old lately?

It’s true she’s not so illuminating these days. She doesn’t provide as much insight as Marion Bartoli, Vera Zvonareva, or Sam Stosur. Or as much entertainment value as Serena Williams, Jelena Jankovic, and Andrea Petkovic. But she offered more of both before she got to the top, and even now she’s knowledgeable, not to mention personable and quick with a smile.

It's time for a change, for us and for her.

Last month I talked to her agent, Lagardere’s John Tobias, who spoke of the “unfair” criticism his client gets. How she’s only played four Slams since reaching No. 1 and gotten to the semis of two, how she’s the youngest player in the Top 10. “What she’s accomplished until this point is really amazing,” he said. “People just need to realize that women’s tennis, like men’s tennis, has become such a physically-demanding sport. It requires a bigger girl like a Kvitova or a mature athlete to consistently win Slams.” Tobias is confident Wozniacki will win Slams, that it’s a matter of time. He has a point, though he has a dog in the fight. (A few actually—he also represents Victoria Azarenka, Agnieszka Radwanska, Sloane Stephens and Coco Vandeweghe.)

Still, Wozniacki will and should lose the No. 1 ranking, at least for now.

Kvitova is the form player, and her ascent would give the ranking system more legitimacy. For Wozniacki it would be a chance to regain her sanity and make needed improvements away from the bright lights and big questions. The short-term loss could mean a Slam and subsequent long-term gains. Right now it’s time for a change, for us and for her, but I wouldn’t complain if she returned for a good, long run, even better and with serious hardware in tow.

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