At least Caroline Wozniacki didn’t start crying on the court and openly, loudly, asking why she’s such a chicken. That’s what Dinara Safina did a few years ago, in her classic No. 1 women’s tennis meltdown.
We’ve seen all sorts of No. 1 players on the women’s tour get to the top and then just blow away like a leaf in the wind. Wozniacki, the current No. 1, lost to career choker Daniela Hantuchova 6-1, 6-3 Friday in the third round of the French Open. It was another embarrassing moment for women’s tennis, but more importantly, I wonder if this was the beginning of the fall of Wozniacki.
It’s not that she lacks mental fortitude like Safina. Or Ana Ivanovic. Or Jelena Jankovic. The problem with her is her game. And I’ve gone into it enough times in this space that I won’t spend much time on it now. But she’s way too passive, and doesn’t go out and take anything. She won’t lose to you, but will let you beat her if you are strong enough mentally to bash several shots on the court in a row. That has worked for her, except in majors, because of the nervousness throughout the women’s tour.
But the pressure on other players going against Wozniacki has just dropped for good. She lost her mystique with this match. If Hantuchova can hold it together against her for two sets in a major, then anyone can.
First set: Zero winners. What’s to be afraid of, anyway?
Women’s tennis has a problem. A sport needs to have a champion, someone who is best. Instead, this sport now has a void. A computer has to spit out a name, so it will still say Wozniacki. But she still hasn’t won a major. Serena Williams was best a year ago when she left, but who knows now? And she doesn’t play enough. Kim Clijsters has won the past two majors, so maybe she’s best, but her collapse to a nobody on Wednesday suggests her focus might be slipping, and her future short.
We’re still learning about Wozniacki. She tried to become more aggressive in the second set, even drilling a forehand right at Hantuchova once and knocking her off the baseline. Wozniacki came to net a few times, too, but didn’t seem to know how to get there. She tried to do more with her serve. And she hit eight winners in the set.
Give her credit for trying to adjust. It was still awfully passive to count as “aggressive,’’ though, and she also wasn’t very good at it. But this was a disturbing quote from her afterward: “She knew what she was going to do, and she was too good.’’
That makes it sound as if Wozniacki didn’t think there was anything she could do about it. No champion thinks that way. She’s going to have to learn something. More and more, without a mystique, she will find others able to do what Hantuchova did.
Wozniacki doesn’t have to entirely re-tool her game. She doesn’t have to become a basher, but just someone who can do that if needed. She’s still just 20, and able to make very real changes. But is she willing?
One note: The new ball they’re using at the French, that Babolat ball, flies fast and favors bashers. It helped Hantuchova, who could pound the ball through the clay. Still, the No. 1 player can’t allow herself to be completely run over that way.
This tournament was Wozniacki’s for the taking (and now is Maria Sharapova’s), with Clijsters playing hurt and the Williams sisters out with injury and sickness. It should have been Wozniacki’s proving ground, her big breakthrough.
Instead, she reportedly cried after the match, and has done that before at majors. But I don’t think that matters. Emotional reaction afterward isn’t the same as it would be on the court. I don’t think it’s a sign she’s cracking. She needs to win a major soon, though, or maybe it all will start to get to her.
She’s no chicken. But on the court, she’s going to have to learn to do more than just peck away.