Friday, January 24, 2020

Ain't No Sunshine When She's Gone--Wozniacki retires from professional tennis



She’s often called the Great Dane, and she has occasionally been called the Golden Retriever. But for the most part, Caroline Wozniacki is known in the tennis world as “Sunshine.” The Danish star, a former world number 1, had previously announced that the 2020 Australian Open would be her final tournament, and on Friday (Australian time), her exit—facilitated by Ons Jabeur in the third round—marked the end of a colorful, excellent career.

Wozniacki will be remembered for many things, but perhaps more than anything else, she will be remembered as one of the best defensive players to ever grace the WTA. The Dane once remarked that she was willing and able to remain on the court for hours, and she wasn’t exaggerating. She frequently wore opponents down with her indefatigable running and fetching, and there appeared to be no limitation to her endurance. Her backhand, which she often hit on the run, was a mighty weapon.

Wozniacki was at her best on hard courts. She reached the final of the U.S. Open in both 2009 and 2014, but lost both finals to Kim Clijsters and Serena Williams, respectively. In 2018, when some observers thought that Wozniacki’s major victory potential window had closed, she won the Australian Open, defeating top seed Simona Halep in the final.

The Australian victory was somewhat of a vindication for the Dane, who had come under criticism for holding the world number 1 ranking without having won a major. This is not an unusual phenomenon, giving the way the rankings system works, but it nevertheless causes discomfort among some tennis fans and members of the tennis media. Wozniacki held the number 1 spot for a total of 71 weeks, starting in 2010.

The Dane was also often criticized for relying too much on her defensive skills, and—later in her career—she would remedy this problem by becoming more aggressive. Several years ago (before she finally won a major), I wrote some blank verse about her, which was published in a literary sports journal called The Barnstormer. It ceased publishing a few years ago and did not leave any archives on the Internet, so I can’t link to it (it was accompanied by a nice black and white illustration), but here is the poem:

The Lesson of Caroline
By Diane Elayne Dees

Up and down and side to side she sprints
without fatigue. The match can last for hours;
the Dane will scarcely shine a bead of sweat
or fail to stretch and meet the ball right on
the sweet spot. With those metronomic swings,
Wozniacki can wear down the stalwart grinders,
the spinners, steely veterans, braided upstarts.
But Wozniacki needs to take it from you.
She takes it, but she doesn't dish it out.
To run the risk, to grab control, feels wrong
somehow--no Sunshine in that raw aggression.
So Wozniacki never wins the big ones;
she doesn't get to lift the silver plate
or see her smile reflected in a statue.
To guard and to defend is something learned;
it propels you to the line, but never over.
Watching Wozniacki's hesitation,
I confront the Caroline who lives in me.

No discussion of Caroline Wozniacki is complete without a mention of her father, Piotr Wozniacki, who was her coach throughout most of her career. Their on-court coaching sit-downs were often dramatic, with Piotr gesturing frantically and talking loudly to his daughter. And no matter how many other big names were brought on to either coach or consult—they were all eventually sent packing. For Wozniacki, there was simply no coach like her father.

Wozniacki reached 55 singles finals and won 30 of them. One of those titles was the 2017 WTA Finals, and six of them were Premier Mandatory and Premiere 5 events. She won the New Haven tournament four times, leading fans and tennis media to refer to it as the “Wozniacki Open.”





Though she was known as “Sunshine,” the Danish star had a bit of an edge about her, often going out of her way to call attention to herself, and engaging—throughout her career—in highly theatrical putdowns of chair umpires. For the most part, she got a pass for these behaviors.

In 2014, after having undergone a painful personal loss, Wozniacki ran the New York Marathon with a very impressive finish time of three hours and 26 mintues. The moment she crossed the finish line, met by her close friend Serena Williams, was filled with emotion and inspiration.

In 2017, Wozniacki married former NBA star David Lee. Toward the end of 2018, she was diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis. It seemed logical that the 29-year-old WTA stalwart might retire soon, yet now that it has actually happened, it feels a bit unreal.

The Australian Open draw had Wozniacki and her friend Serena Williams on a track to meet one another in the round of 16. That would have been a dramatic affair, but it wasn’t meant to be. Not only did Wozniacki lose, but Williams also went out in the third round—to Wang Qiang.

After her loss to Jabeur in Melbourne, Wozniacki, in fine form, remarked that "I think it was only fitting that my last match would be a three-setter, a grinder, and that I would finish my career with a forehand error." And as she did her walk around Melbourne Arena, the crowd sang her signature song, “Sweet Caroline.”  It was a fitting send-off for a WTA icon.

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