We’ve accepted all different kinds of tennis champions, from artists to bashers, heavy-spinners to flat-ballers, serve-and-volleyers to baseliners. Why can’t we accept Caroline Wozniacki? Or at least, why can’t I?
I’m not just talking about her No. 1 ranking. In tennis, the rankings are just a sidebar to what makes a champion. Champions win majors, and she never has. But it’s more than that. It’s her style of play, her defensive, wait-for-the-other-guy-to-miss style. I want a champion to win a match, not to not-lose it. Winning a championship is supposed to be an active pursuit, not a passive one. You go take it.
Maybe that’s just the American in me, but I’m having a hard time thinking of past champions who weren’t killers deep-down. It’s not coincidence that has kept Wozniacki from winning a major while winning most everything and everywhere else. It’s not just a matter of time for someone so young and so good. It’s her style, her non-champion style.
That’s my theory, anyway. I wrote about it a couple weeks ago, and it seemed to stir things up some in Denmark, where she’s from. How’s this for modern media: Based on my blog post here, I ended up on Danish TV that day via Skype from my home in Chicago.
But the path has been cleared perfectly for Wozniacki at the French Open, where she plays her first-round match Monday against 40-year old Kimiko Date-Krumm. The Williams sisters are out with injuries and illness; Kim Clijsters, who has won the past two majors, is trying to play on a heavily taped ankle with torn ligaments; Justine Henin, the queen of the French Open, has retired again.
This is Wozniacki’s big chance. And maybe I’ve been a little unfair to her. She’s just 20, so she has plenty of time to develop some sort of attack. But maybe her current style is, in fact, what can make a champion in this era.
Maybe Wozniacki is defining a new champion. I don’t think so, but maybe.
Face it, the women on tour today show a complete lack of variety, and all but a handful have shown a lack of guts, too. They all sit back and bash away. Julia Goerges, a young player suddenly emerging, was in a tight second set Sunday and won when her opponent double-faulted three times in a row in the last game.
Pressure moment, no nerve = Choke.
Last month, former No. 1 Arantxa Sanchez-Vicario sounded to most people like an old-fogey living in the past. The media ripped her for it. One thing: What she said to the Spanish newspaper El Pais was right.
Every. . .last. . .word.
“We (players in her era) had eight or 10 players who always had an extreme rivalry,’’ she said, according to Tennis Magazine’s translation into English. “And to be No. 1, or winning a Grand Slam or two, that just didn’t come. Now, everything is much more open. . .
“There is a lot more power in the game, but it lacks variety. If you ask people, they know names of the Williams sisters or Clijsters, and Henin, but don’t ask them to tell you the name of the No. 1.’’
I’m not sure exactly what tennis coaches must be teaching young girls today, but the players who seem to be able to adapt, and to hold their nerve, are older. Wozniacki lost to Li Na, who’s 29, in the Australian. At last year’s French, she lost to eventual champ Francesca Schiavone, who is 30.
One Williams sister is on each side of 30. Clijsters will turn 28 next month. They are champions.
Wozniacki doesn’t play like the other young players. She’s a backboard with great footwork. She doesn’t crush the ball, but keeps running balls down and makes her opponents bash more balls onto the court than they’re used to. That takes nerve. Mostly, they don’t have it.
So while I don’t see Wozniacki’s style as that of a champion, maybe the truth is that her game just happens to be perfectly suited for her era’s opponents. That’s what a champion is supposed to be, right? She has developed the game that works against players who lack nerve and adaptability, and today’s players lack nerve and adaptability.
In the old days, Sanchez-Vicario’s days, that wouldn’t have worked. I think Wozniacki would have had a hard time staying in the top seven or eight. Imagine big hitters with nerve, say Lindsay Davenport, facing her.
But today, only a handful of players, and some other veterans, can adjust and produce their best at the biggest moments. The majors. Many of those players are out or playing hurt.
Wozniacki could be great for tennis. She wants to be a champion, and can sell the game well. I can imagine Maria Sharapova, who I pick to win the French, getting her game back fully and going on to have a great rivalry with Wozniacki. But if Wozniacki has the style of a champion, this would be the moment to prove it.