Never afraid to take a punch, Wozniacki's final bout ends in Melbourne

Never afraid to take a punch, Wozniacki's final bout ends in Melbourne

The former No. 1 closed out her career at the site of her greatest achievement: the Australian Open. Ons Jabeur edged the Dane, 7-5, 3-6, 7-5, on Friday.

In a boxing ring, adrenaline paralyzes all other emotions. Surrounded by a crowd equally as charged, two adversaries put forth a sequence that is concentrated, yet improvised. Feeling the rhythm—when to uppercut and when to jab—explores the boundaries of patience and awareness. Accepting punches loaded with unforgiving force is the expectation. How often, and for how long, the explosive power can be withstood is the mystery.

Caroline Wozniacki is an athlete well-acquainted with receiving punches. The measurable hits, delivered by more imposing rivals unloading potent groundstrokes and popping serves; the press room swings, presented by media members questioning her ability to win without a perceived knockout move and commitment to sticking with her dad as coach; the off-court blows, carried out by the public gossiping about events in her personal life; and the internal knocks, brought on a body and mind being out of sync.

At the 2011 US Open, Wozniacki explained that her attraction to boxing went beyond a useful workout for her core and shoulders. Rather, the sport opened the Dane up to a perspective about her own ambition.

“You learn how to distribute your power. I just went all in in the beginning, and after two rounds you're dead. I realized you have to wait for your chances,” she said. “I need to wait for the right moment. The same in tennis. You can't just go all in all the time.”

This week in Melbourne, one of the WTA’s most consummate professionals stepped into the ring for the final time. Now married to former NBA star David Lee and an advocate for rheumatoid arthritis, a condition she was diagnosed with in August of 2018, the 29-year-old announced in December that the 2020 Australian Open would be her final tournament, following nearly 15 years on tour.

"I wanted to finish at a time when I still felt great. I love the sport and when I leave I still want to love the sport and feel the passion for it," Wozniacki said on Good Morning America. "It’s never going to be an easy decision when you’ve done this your whole life but it just feels right. I’m ready for it."

Flashing her signature smile all week long, it was clear Wozniacki was taking in each moment of her farewell event. Every practice, every autograph request, every interview, every step around the grounds and on the court. She defeated Kristie Ahn, 6-1, 6-3, on the opening day, before her never-quit attitude shone through one last time.

In her second-round encounter with rising No. 23 seed Dayana Yastremska, Wozniacki overcame a 1-5 deficit to win the opening set, then battled back from a break down once again. Down 4-5, Yastremska took an untimely medical timeout, but Wozniacki was undeterred, and though it took six match points, she put away the spirited Ukrainian for a 7-5, 7-5 victory.

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In her next round, Wozniacki fought valiantly again, ultimately falling to Ons Jabeur in a two-hour plus tussle. The Tunisian enjoyed her own major moment, winning 7-5, 3-6, 7-5, to clinch the first round of 16 appearance by an Arab woman. Wozniacki's final stat sheet is distinguished: a 635-264 record, 30 WTA singles titles and 71 weeks atop the WTA rankings.

"I think it's only fitting that my career finished with a three setter, a grinder, and that my career would finish on a forehand error. Those are the things I've been working on my whole career," Wozniacki said in her on-court farewell interview with Chanda Rubin.

Wozniacki found early success in the upper echelon of the game when at 20, she finished as year-end No. 1 in 2010 and repeated the feat a year later. By the time she was 22, the Odense native had 20 WTA titles to her name. In 2014, having seen her then-wedding to Rory McIlroy called off and ranking fall outside the Top 15, Wozniacki reached her second US Open final. She ended her year by pushing tour bestie Serena Williams to a final-set tiebreaker at the WTA Finals, before running the New York City Marathon, finishing with a time that was good enough to qualify her for the Boston Marathon.

“A lot of people give up when it gets tough. That's when you have to go that one step further. That's where all the good things happen,” Wozniacki said in Singapore that year.

Over the next two seasons, Wozniacki hit the mat hard. After getting back to the Top 5, she was knocked out of the second round at three of the four majors in 2015—punctuated by blowing four match points against Petra Cetkovska in a crushing New York exit. As her ranking trended in the wrong direction, Wozniacki rolled her right ankle in practice, forcing her out of the entire 2016 clay-court season. A first-round defeat at Wimbledon soon followed in a string of bumps.

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“At one point you're just like, ‘You know what, it has to turn, it has to go the other way eventually.’ I'm just going to take the punches I'm getting and just try and learn from it and try and move forward,” Wozniacki said at the All England Club.

Her aspiration of collecting an elusive major title appeared to be out of grasp, out of sight. Wozniacki would drop to No. 74, but her No. 1 weapon, self-belief, was one quality that never shattered. Through all the suffering, Wozniacki incessantly refused to throw in the towel. By getting back up for more, the “good things” did eventually come when approaching the latter rounds of her career bout.

A return to the last four at Flushing Meadows and two WTA titles renewed Wozniacki’s stature toward the end of 2016. After finishing runner-up in six finals, her 2017 ended with two trophies, including the WTA Finals, and an engagement ring from Lee. But it was at the 2018 Australian Open where the counterpuncher reaped her greatest belt.

Down 5-1 in the third set of her second-round match with Jana Fett, Wozniacki saved two match points en route to reeling off the final six games. Eleven days thereafter, Wozniacki poignantly raised her fists in triumph, after prevailing in a gripping three-set battle over Simona Halep.

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In her 43rd major appearance, Wozniacki had at last swung back at every cynic with her most substantial stand. No longer was she the player incapable of winning seven rounds at a Grand Slam event. Wozniacki trusted in waiting for her moment, one that was enriched by adding the title of No. 1 next to her name, a status she reclaimed for the first time in six years.

“Honestly, nobody knows how much work, dedication you put into it,” Wozniacki reflected afterwards.

“All I could tell myself was, ‘You know what, you've given it everything you have. If it's going to happen, it's going to happen. If not, then at least you know you've given it everything you've got and you can be proud of any achievement.’ Obviously adding a Grand Slam to my CV is what caps it off and really, I think, shows my whole career as a whole.”

Wozniacki may not have ended up with a dream coronation at Melbourne Park two years later, but if the past is any indication, the sunny champion will keep pounding away at a new set of goals with grace and grit. From the crosses and jabs to the hooks and uppercuts, there won't be a punch Wozniacki can't handle in her next chapter, and all that follow.