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Friday, March 16, 2012
Hey, Wozniacki, give Ivanovic a call


When Caroline Wozniacki met Ana Ivanovic in the quarterfinals at Indian Wells the other night, it was a case of ships bumping in the night -- an accident you could blame on the fact that they appear to be heading in opposite directions on the same narrow waterway.

Ivanovic triumphed over the No. 4 seed with authority, 6-3, 6-2, and Thursday she followed it up with a convincing win over No. 7 seed Marion Bartoli. Ivanovic will battle No. 2 seed Maria Sharapova for a place in the final.

A former No. 1 player and Grand Slam champion (at the French Open, 2008), Ivanovic had trouble handling the pressure and expectations that followed her metoric rise to the top. At times in the ensuing years, she was ranked outside the top 50 and seemed deeply confused.

But Ivanovic kept the faith. She worked with a succession of coaches and, at a glacial pace, regained her confidence. But it often still seems like a one-step forward, two-steps-back enterprise. She's just No. 16 now, but she's seen the Promised Land and wants to return.

I have to wonder if Wozniacki, who likes for people to know that she's a nice girl who gets along with everyone, would consider calling Ivanovic and asking her advice. For Wozniacki appears to be on the brink of experiencing something very similar to what Ivanovic has lived.

Wozniacki finished 2011 as the year-end WTA No. 1 for the second year in a row -- the first woman to attain that distinction without ever having won a Grand Slam title. Last year was the killer. She embarked on 2011 with a mandate to add that long-deferred Grand Slam win as a final stamp of legitimacy to her ranking. And she failed to do it.

Wozniacki handled that sticky situation well, at least from a public relations point of view, insisting that at 20 she still had plenty of time to win majors. And she expressed great confidence in her game as is. In retrospect, she might have been better served menacing rivals and breaking rackets. The handwriting suddenly appeared on the wall at the end of last year, when Petra Kvitova, Victoria Azarenka and Sharapova closed the ranking gap without quite unseating Wozniacki.

Critics said that Wozniacki needed to add more offense to her game, and she hired Ricardo Sanchez to help out her dad/coach, Piotr Wozniacki, for 2012. But when Wozniacki played a desultory quarterfinal at the Australian Open, losing to Kim Clijsters, you could almost hear the wheels falling off.

By the end of the tournament, she was bypassed and headed down to No. 4. (and with Ivanovic's win at Indian Wells, she's sure to fall as far as No. 6 or even 7 by the next rankings issue). Sanchez was fired shortly after the Australian debacle -- the theory being that his desire to turn Wozniacki into a more aggressive player worried Piotr and made Caroline uncomfortable.

The Wozniackis clung to a "dance with the one who brung you" attitude regarding the game that took Wozniacki to the year-end No. 1 ranking two years running. How bad could that game be?

The more pertinent question might have been: How much better did that solid but overly defensive game need to be to keep her rivals at bay and to combat the newer, bolder type of players who emerged to threaten her alongside aggressive standbys like Sharapova and Serena Williams?

That question went unanswered. Wozniacki hasn't won a tournament this year in five tries. She still hasn't won a major. She must feel like the walls are closing in, because she almost broke down in tears twice during her postmatch news conference following her loss to Ivanovic.

At one point she said, "But it's not like it's a disaster. I've been playing pretty consistently and just want to take the next step. But my time will definitely come again."

It's funny, but I don't recall Ivanovic ever declaring that her time "will definitely come again." Yet here we are, with the former No. 1 in the semis and Wozniacki out of the tournament.

Wozniacki hasn't hit rock bottom, and she may recapture the magic before she falls too far. But I would keep Ivanovic's number handy, just in case.