Sunday, September 25, 2016

Ain't no Sunshine when she's gone

Photo by Daniel Ward
This weekend, Caroline Wozniacki won the Pan Pacific Open. There was a time when that wouldn't have been considered news--she's won it before--but in 2016, it's a flashy headline. Wozniacki, who entered the U.S. Open as number 74 in the world, and now she's close to getting back into the top 20. Seemingly out of nowhere, the former world number 1 known as Sunshine (and some affectionate canine names--The Great Dane and The Golden Retriever) won her 24th WTA title when, only recently, it appeared her career was sliding into nowhere.

Not that we didn't have a hint that this was coming. Wozniacki came back to life at the U.S. Open, where she made it to the semifinals, losing to eventual champion Angelique Kerber. During her run in Flushing Meadows, Wozniacki upset both 9th seed Svetlana Kuznetsova and 8th seed Madison Keys.

The Tokyo draw was a tough one. Wozniacki had to beat Belinda Bencic, 4th seed Carla Suarez Navarro and 2nd seed and defending champion Aga Radwanska. Her opponent in the final was a surprise. 18-year-old Naomi Osaka had to remove the likes of Misaki Doi, 6th seed Dominika Cibulkova and an on-fire Elina Svitolina just to make it to the last round. Wozniacki defeated Osaka 7-5, 6-3 to win the title.

But what does this mean, insofar as the big picture is concerned? So many times, Wozniacki has come back from a seeming slip into the lower rankings, yet has always managed to find a way back to the top or near-top. She has managed to win at least one title for the past nine years. This time, her comeback was dramatic, which could be a big motivator for her--or not.

Wozniacki has always been hard to read as an athlete. A very physically strong player with amazing on-court endurance, the Dane has long been considered one of the greatest defensive players in the game. She has demonstrated her grit on the court on many occasions. We also saw her demonstrate it off the court when her response to the break-up of her primary relationship was to run the New York Marathon--in an unbelievably fast time.

Wozniacki's critics have emphasized two themes throughout her career--her hesitancy to add (or sometimes, to retain) aggression in her game style, and her reliance on her father as her coach. Others have tried to coach Wozniacki, but in the end (which is generally much sooner than later) they were all sent packing in favor of Piotr Wozniacki. Wozniacki becomes suddenly aggressive and wins matches she might have lost before--and then she drops the aggression.

It's hard not to compare the Danish star with Angelique Kerber. They are both very strong of leg and have mighty endurance. They are both known for their sterling defensive play. Both of their serves range from good enough to excellent, depending on the match. But Kerber, rather than wavering on the aggression she added to her game, has made a commitment to integrating it. She has also won two majors.

This latest dramatic comeback from Wozniacki adds quite a bit of intrigue to the 2016 season. Is the Dane about to put it all together and win that elusive major in 2017? In the past, it's been hard for her fans to bet on that prospect. But in professional tennis, players can rise and fall at the most unexpected times (consider Kerber, and--sadly, Petra Kvitova). Wozniacki now represents a major question mark as we move toward the end of the season.

No comments: