No. 1, With a Shadow

by: Peter Bodo | January 10, 2011

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by Pete Bodo

Q: What are the chances that Caroline Wozniacki, 2010's No. 1 ranked player, will silence all the skeptics by winning the Australian Open?

A: Well, a few days ago the prognosis was certainly good, despite the hex that seems to befall players who earn the No. 1 ranking before having won a major. Think about it: Marcelo Rios is still the only ATP player to have done that. He never did win one, either. (His best result was an Australian Open final loss to Petr Korda, the Czech player who was soon caught and suspended for doping.)

Jelena Jankovic was the WTA No. 1 at the end of 2008, and the natural arc of career and her proficiency on hard courts suggested that she would put the final piece of a champion's puzzle in place with a win in Melbourne. It didn't happen; she looked like a jackrabbit paralyzed in the headlights during the 2009 Australian Open, going out in strikingly listless in the fourth round to Marion Bartoli in straights. Jankovic said she'd made a tactical error by working too hard in the off-season, ending up muscle-bound and lacking her usual quickness and agility. But if you recall, she also appeared to lack determination and confidence, elements that have less to do with muscle than one of two organs—the first positioned above the shoulders, the second inside the rib cage.

By April of that year, the WTA placed the No. 1 tiara on the head of yet another woman who had not won a major, Dinara Safina. Unlike Jankovic, Safina celebrated her new status with some terrific results; unfortunately, she was unable to produce them at the only tournaments where she still had something to prove, the majors. She was picked apart by Svetlana Kuznetsova in the French Open final, got a single game off Venus Williams in the ensuing Wimbledon (semifinals), and lost a heartbreaking three-setter in the third round of the U.S. Open to a player of a lower class, Petra Kvitova. By the end of the year, Safina was off the tour, suffering from serious back troubles.

So now it's Wozniacki's turn, and how she'll react to the challenge constitutes the major WTA question one week out from the start of the year's first major. Wozniacki has said all the right things, up to and beyond the point where she secured the top ranking in the fall. She worked extremely hard and diligently to succeed, and has handled her new status gracefully. The Australian Open hard courts, which enhance spins nicely, will be friendly to her game, which is "physical," as befitting a lass who's broad shouldered, wide at the hips, and 5'10" and 128 pounds (I assume that like many WTA pros, she's lying through her teeth about her weight). Despite her size, Wozniacki doesn't have a knockout punch, but she can work over an opponent's game like a punishing body-puncher, wearing and finally breaking down a rival's resistance.

However, success with that kind of game usually demands a certain amount of complicity from an opponent—the willingness to stand and trade blows. And the women most likely to find a solution to Wozniacki's game are those who won't get into a slugfest. Nimble hotmakers and proponents of the flat, penetrating ball cause her problems.

Last year at this time, Li Na throttled Wozniacki in back to back matches in Sydney and Melbourne. At the French Open, Wozniacki fell victim in the quarterfinals to Francesca Schiavone, who deployed her racquet-like wand over the course of two weeks to win the title. In the fourth round at Wimbledon, Wozniacki got just two games off the big-serving, happy attacker Kvitova, and at the U.S. Open she was beaten in the semis by the woman in whom nobody believes, Vera Zvonareva.

Wozniacki undoubtedly lifted her game after the loss at Wimbledon last July. Her loss in the U.S. Open semis was framed by impressive wins in Montreal and New Haven and, after the U.S. Open, Beijing and Tokyo. She played well at the year-end championships, losing a three-setter to Kim Clijsters.

Clijsters is closer to the kind of player against whom Wozniacki is most effective, though, except on those occasions when Clijsters shows a desire to push forward and take the ball on the rise. The comparison with Zvonareva sheds better light on Wozniacki's vulnerability for technical and strategic reasons, but also because Zvonareva has positioned herself as a kind of shadow No. 1. Ranked right behind Wozniacki, and with two Grand Slam finals to her credit, Zvonareva probably is Wozniacki's most dangerous rival for the Australian Open title.

Zvonareva is easy to underestimate. She has evolved over the years from an underachiever into a head case, then morphed into an emotional basket case, and finally a hard luck story—in 2010 she reached three Grand Slam finals (Wimbledon singles and doubles, and U.S. Open singles) and didn't win one. In fact, she catapulted to No. 2 with just one title to show for her year, that of Pattaya City. That's a paltry reward indeed for the kind of year she crafted.

While it's easy to marvel at Zvonareva's seeming genius for self-sabotage (or the genius others have for taking advantage of Zvonareva on big stages), the fact is she earned that No. 2 ranking, and has shown greater emotional self-discipline and determination that ever before. What if this multi-talented contender can take that final step to certification as a Grand Slam champion? It's the biggest small step in tennis. The one thing we know for sure is that Zvonareva has an excellent box of tools, if not the ability to employ them most lethally when it most counts. She can use her slice effectively, attack when the occasion warrants, retrieve well and take pretty good care of her serve.

Vera The official head-to-head argues that Zvonareva gives nothing up in her match-up with Wozniacki, who enjoys a one-match advantage at 4-3. The scores are all over the map and not very helpful. But did you see the brutal way Zvonareva crushed Wozniacki in that Hong Kong exhibition a few days ago, winning in 58 minutes while giving up just one game?

Wozniacki dismissed that result (it was, after all, just an exhibition), albeit without a trace of huffiness or arrogance. “Vera played very well today. I definitely didn’t play up to my level. I had some good shots then I had some really bad shots and some wrong selection of shots. But it’s OK. I just need to learn from this one. It was a practice match for me. I just need to learn. There is still a few days until the Australian Open. I just need to keep working hard and hopefully I’ll peak my form when I get there.” player's exo is another's turning point, and whatever else is true, it certainly seems that Zvonareva didn't look upon Hong Kong as a hit-and-giggle exercise. Both women will remember the clash, at least until the end of this month.

Zvonareva said of her performance: “I was dominating the match and didn’t let her find her rhythm today.”

When you start talking about shot selection, keeping a player out of her rhythm, learning from losses...that's a sign that there's a fair amount of strategic and tactical activity simmering beneath the surface. So right now I'd say that coupled with her previous win over Venus Williams in Hong Kong, Zvonareva has made a statement. Add to this sobering blow-out in Hong Kong the combination of Wozniacki's patchy record at majors and the pressure she'll be under in Melbourne, and you get the feeling that come Melbourne, Wozniacki will have her hands full.

Zvonareva has lost to high-quality players in Australia, including Lindsay Davenport, Martina Hingis, Maria Sharapova, Dinara Safina and (last year) Victoria Azarenka. She knows those courts and must feel pretty good on them. I've always been a Zvonareva skeptic; her histrionics and "woe is me" tendencies present a pretty broad target. But if Zvonareva and Wozniacki are fated to meet in the Australian final, as the seedings suggest, I'll have to think long and hard about my prediction. If I were Wozniacki, I'd feel more threatened by Zvonareva than any other player in the draw.

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