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As Spain exchanges the Davis Cup for the World Cup, we shift from our match-oriented analyses to another article in our series of player profiles.  Turning 20 today (July 11), Caroline Wozniacki already has embedded her name among the WTA elite, yet the engaging Dane still struggles to shed the label of “pusher.”  Employed to characterize counterpunchers with few offensive weapons, the term overlooks the manifold strengths that the precocious world #3 has developed already as a teenager.  We discuss those dimensions in her game as well as areas that she might wish to enhance in order to break through at majors and brand her imprint on tennis history. 

Five key strengths:

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1)       backhand:  Struck with a compact, crisp swing, Wozniacki’s preferred groundstroke rarely crumbles under pressure.  The Dane times it cleanly for penetrating blows both cross court and down the line, while adeptly disguising the direction as long as possible.  A much more potent weapon than her forehand (see below), the backhand offers her the best opportunity to transition from defense into offense.  In fact, we’ve noticed that the world #3 recently has attempted to create more ambitious angles with the shot than the north-south, high-percentage strokes that long have defined her comfort zone.  When dragged out of position, moreover, she generally manages to keep both hands on the racket for maximum pace and depth.   As Wozniacki’s game matures, she might seek to incorporate a backhand slice for variety against especially monochromatic opponents, but this shot ranks among the top backhands in the WTA even without such an addition. 

2)       return:  Although she doesn’t pound the outright return winners of her mightier rivals, Wozniacki has honed a steady return that conforms with her counterpunching style in rallies.  When confronting top servers such as Serena in Sydney last year, she prioritizes solid contact over first-strike aggression (not unlike David Ferrer) and thus carves her way into more rallies than do riskier shotmakers.   Instead of targeting a line or corner, this rising star focuses upon creating sufficient depth to prevent her foe from striking an instant winner into the open court.  In addition to her excellent eye-hand coordination, the intelligent Dane seems equipped with above-average skills at anticipating the placement of an opponent’s serve from toss direction and other unwitting signals.  (Nevertheless, those apparent instincts could represent the product of advance research on her adversary’s preferences.)  On crucial moments such as break points, Wozniacki possesses the mental sturdiness to refrain from leaving her comfort zone and recklessly attempting return winners, a tactic prevalent among more anxiety-ridden peers (see I for Ivanovic).

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3)       movement / footwork:  Probably a shade more agile at lateral movement, the Dane still covers the forecourt skillfully when forced to retrieve drop shots.  During her Indian Wells semifinal with friend and rival Radwanska, she responded impressively to the Pole’s exquisite, feathery gambits in that region.  Armed with a somewhat uncommon combination of footwork and foot speed, Wozniacki usually gains sufficient time to position herself for her shots even when on the run, which enables her to strike balls with a fully balanced body weight more often than less lithe movers.  The centered, clean swings that result prevent her opponents from moving into the forecourt and seizing the initiative with imaginative angles.   Despite the Dane’s tendency to lean towards the open court, she reverses direction better than many other counterpunchers, so the tactic of hitting behind her doesn’t always reap the desired results.

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4)       fortitude:  From our perspective, the most memorable moment of the Doha year-end championships was not Serena’s pair wins over her sister.  Nor was it the spectacular implosion of Azarenka, as entertaining as it was.  Instead, the defining image was Wozniacki’s tearful but determined face after she overcame an excruciating hamstring injury during a three-set duel with Zvonareva, which rewarded her with an improbable semifinal berth.  Rare among the WTA’s younger generation is the Dane’s fortitude, which has served her well even against the tour’s veterans.  Clashing with Kuznetsova at last year’s US Open, the world #3 summoned her stingiest, most relentless brand of defense to outlast the Russian’s fiery shotmaking in a nerve-jangling final-set tiebreak.  When she faced Henin in a Miami quarterfinal this year, she lost a tight three-setter but demonstrated her willpower by wresting a ferociously contested first set from the Belgian.  While she faded a bit in the last two sets, Wozniacki nevertheless resolutely held her serve and forced Henin to serve out the match instead of meekly capitulating as one might have expected from a teenager.   Unlike her ancestor Jankovic, the Dane characteristically retains her focus on important stages and battles tenaciously in adverse conditions or circumstances.  Only occasionally has she become flustered by the situation, such as in the US Open final, and even at that moment she refused to collapse in the abject manner of many recent first-time finalists.   

5)       tennis IQ:  Much like her fellow counterpuncher Murray, the Dane meticulously targets an opponent’s flaws and has developed a knack for placing the ball in awkward positions, where an adversary would be tempted to unleash rash, low-percentage shots.  Wozniacki doesn’t flinch from hitting moonballs when stretched outside the sideline, displaying an ability to improvise during rallies and a keen understanding of court positioning.  Even when she doesn’t execute her intention, she normally attempts the correct or most viable shot and commits egregious unforced errors much less often than most of the WTA.  Often understated in an era of powerful ball-strikers, this court sense proves a valuable weapon against one-dimensional styles and can compensate for her lack of an overwhelming offensive strike against anyone outside the sport’s uppermost elite.

Five areas for improvement:

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1)   forehand:  Less reliably timed than her backhand, this loopier, elongated swing occasionally can break down under pressure.  In the 2009 Australian Open, Wozniacki’s forehand wilted against Dokic as her mental steadiness unexpectedly deserted her; in the US Open final, this shot once again drifted out to sea late in the first set after she gained an opportunity to seize control.  Reminding us of Murray, the forehand possesses much less sting than the aggressive drives of her rivals and probably comprises the single most significant area where the Dane must improve in order to capture a major title.  Forehand-to-forehand crosscourt rallies against fellow top-10 players almost invariably tilt to her disadvantage, whereas her foes find themselves far less able to overpower her in backhand-to-backhand rallies.

2)  finishing points:  During the 2010 Indian Wells final against Jankovic, Wozniacki confronted the principal challenge of a counterpuncher:  hitting through another counterpuncher.  This clear mismatch underscored her powerlessness against a player with a similar style but who enjoys slightly more strength and experience.  Trained to select high-percentage shots with ample net clearance, the Dane often struggles to deliver the coup de grace when in an offensive position.  Lacking the point-ending shot enjoyed by most Slam champions, she needs to hit two or three extra balls in order to set up a winner just as she compels her opponents to hit two or three extra balls in order to set up their winners.  If Wozniacki improves the next area on this list, however, this flaw in her game might disappear somewhat swiftly without specific attention.

3)  net play:  Cruelly exposed in the forecourt by the crafty Schiavone at Roland Garros, the Dane remains a strict baseliner in the conventional WTA mold, rarely venturing forwards unless lured there by an opponent.  Often too close to the net when she approaches, Wozniacki hopes to hit just one shot when she arrives in that uncomfortable vicinity and looks awkward at times when dispatching swing volleys or overheads.  Perhaps aggression doesn’t suit her affable personality, but she must familiarize herself with the forecourt in order to win points (and ultimately matches) more efficiently.  Since most of her rivals look equally marooned in such a setting, enhanced net skills would prove an especially valuable means of separating herself from the competition.

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4)  rising to the occasion:  Although one must admire her consistency and steadiness, those traits accompany a negative corollary that hinders Wozniacki in important matches.  On those occasions, she doesn’t lower her level like a Safina or Kuznetsova…but neither does she significantly raise it.  Her calm, workmanlike attitude assists her in winning the matches that she should win but not in overcoming the elite veterans who can ascend to rarely explored heights on the grandest stages.  Among the most convincing examples of this duality was the US Open finals run that witnessed the routine dismissal of several garden-variety opponents before an equally routine loss to Clijsters.  While Slam champions typically elevate their performance as the tournament progresses, Wozniacki is the same player in the first round against Olivia Rogowska that she is in the final against a Williams sister.

5)  scheduling:  Much like Davydenko in the ATP, the Dane enters far too many tournaments to produce her finest tennis at those that matter most.  For example, she followed deep runs at Indian Wells and Miami by participating in both green-clay events at Amelia Island and Charleston.  When she returned prematurely from an ankle injury at the latter event, she competed at four tournaments on the European clay before predictably departing prematurely at Roland Garros and Wimbledon.  Feasting upon mediocre opponents at these mid-level WTA events, she has secured a high ranking that should open up Slam draws for her.  Yet she arrives at majors too weary or battered to exploit such opportunities and consequently must set her priorities more judiciously in order to claim her first major.

***

What does the future hold for a player who just turned 20 on Sunday?  Readers might note that none of the players with whom we have compared her (Jankovic, Ferrer, Murray, Davydenko) have won a Slam, which portends ominously for the Dane.  Nevertheless, Wozniacki has dominated most of her peers over the last two years and more recently captured control of key budding rivalries, including those with Azarenka and Radwanska.  Although she continues to struggle against veterans such as the Belgians or the Williams sisters, time is on her side; when these champions and Sharapova retire, a void will open in the WTA.  Thus far, the younger generation possesses no shotmakers of the calibre attained by Venus or Sharapova, who can hit through Wozniacki’s defenses with ruthless first-strike tennis when firing on all cylinders.  Until such a player surfaces among her contemporaries, Wozniacki will find herself in the latter rounds of majors with increasing frequency, and it’s only a matter of time until she converts one of those opportunities.  Barring serious injury, we expect her to capture at least two or three majors, probably on the hard courts of Melbourne or New York, and remain in the top 10 for most of the next several years.

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We return later in the week with a parallel essay on Ernests Gulbis!

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