This Thursday, at the smog-filled China Open in Beijing, the crowd on Lotus Court witnessed a big event. At the completion of a moderately entertaining match, a fresh-faced new player ascended to the top of the women’s game. The player in question is only twenty-years-old. She is personable and attractive, presenting a more appealing prospect to tennis fans and tennis sponsors than some of the blank-faced automatons who have dominated the game in recent years. This season she has won more titles than any other player and last season she won more matches than anyone else on tour. Yet Caroline Wozniacki’s ascent to the top of the women’s game has been met with scepticism and raised eyebrows. Why? Because she hasn’t achieved tennis’ holy grail – winning a grand slam title. Is the criticism fair? Sport.co.uk doesn’t think so.
Breathing life back into the tour
Ladies’ tennis has had a tumultuous few years. Two of its brightest stars, Kim Clijsters and Justine Henin, retired in quick succession. The all-conquering Williams sisters have had problems with motivation and injury. And for a long time no one emerged to take up the mantle. With Serena Williams dipping in and out of the tour, the world number one spot has jumped, in her absence, around players such as Ana Ivanovic, Jelena Jankovic and Dinara Safina. Each of them has subsequently withered under the weight of expectation carried by the top ranking. With the men’s game overflowing with talent, rivalries and personality, the ladies’ tour has seemed distinctly lacking in comparison.
Caroline Wozniacki has travelled serenely up the rankings without getting dragged into the mire of self-doubt and pressure that has oppressed so many of the other ladies. She has been consistently strong – without becoming robotic and dull. She has played inspired tennis – but doesn’t follow every great performance by an equally bad one the next week. She has injected some warmth and charm back into the tour. She has played and won more matches than anyone else over the past two years. And she has managed most of it in a season when – injuries withstanding – Henin, Clijsters, Serena and Venus are all back in the frame.
Twenty years young
Comparison with some of these ‘greats’ casts an interesting light on the debate as to the young Dane’s merits. Age 20 Serena Williams ended the season ranked number six in the world. Clijsters ended the year of her 20th birthday ranked number two and Henin ranked number five. None of them had won a grand slam title. On this basis, it could be argued that Wozniacki is actually on a higher trajectory than some of the game’s best champions. At twenty-years-old she is far from alone in not having yet snatched a grand slam. However she is in elite company in demonstrating the consistency to attain the world number one spot.
Arguably what the Dane has done – given she is yet to enter her tennis-playing prime – is to achieve more than any of the women around her. Criticising her because she has reached the statistical pinnacle of the game before conquering the emotional heights of a grand slam is, surely, deeply unfair?
Slowly does it
It is somewhat ironic that Wozniacki’s first match as world number one, in Friday’s Beijing quarter final, was against Ana Ivanovic, tennis’ poster girl of two or three years ago. The Serb won her first and only grand slam at Roland Garros in 2008 and with it was catapulted to the top of the game. Having her name alongside the list of grand slam champions proved to be more poisoned chalice than holy grail for the then 21-year-old Serb, the sudden onslaught of expectation and attention causing a drop in form from which she is just, tentatively, starting to recover.
The world’s media may disagree but one imagines that – were Wozniacki given the choice – she would choose her measured path to world number one and, hopefully, onward to grand slam titles, over a headline-grabbing early victory that proves catastrophic in terms of her further career. If Wozniacki can shut out the sceptics then, when her first grand slam title does arrive, she may find herself on a firmer footing to soak up the pressure and ensure that her virgin slam becomes one of many.
So just when will that first ‘big one’ come? A return to some of the ‘greats’ that the detractors like to quote seems apt. A look at the statistics reveals that 21 – the age that Wozniacki turns in July of next year – is somewhat of a magic number. From their base of zero aged 20, Serena Williams and Justine Henin counted five grand slam titles between them by the end of their 21st year. The signs are looking good for our new world number one.