Commentary

The No. 1 who's never won

Can Caroline Wozniacki claim first major at the U.S. Open?

Updated: August 25, 2011, 11:09 AM ET
By Lindsay Berra | ESPN The Magazine

This story appears in the Sept. 5 issue of ESPN The Magazine.

NEWS CONFERENCES ALWAYS GO THE SAME WAY for Caroline Wozniacki. She strides into a room full of reporters and sits patiently at the dais, waiting for the question to come. "So people are talking about you being No. 1 when you haven't won a Grand Slam," some writer will start. "How do you defend your ranking?"

Wozniacki has been putting up with these inquiries since February, when she reclaimed the top spot from Kim Clijsters. No one ever comes right out and says that the rightful No. 1 is her Belgian rival, who has won three of the past eight Slams, but Wozniacki knows what's being implied.

If the question irritates the 21-year-old, she hides it well behind her sweet, sunny and oh-so-Danish demeanor. Even after big losses -- like at Roland Garros in May to No. 24 Daniela Hantuchova and at Wimbledon in June to No. 18 Dominika Cibulkova -- she counters with a version of the same answer. "I don't think I need to prove anything to anybody," she says. "I deserve to be No. 1, and all the players on tour would like to be in my spot."

Maybe so. But there's no denying she's taken an untraditional path to the top spot. Former No. 1's Serena and Venus Williams and Justine Henin all made it to that lofty position in part by winning Slams. Wozniacki has done it by winning consistently. Simply put, she plays and wins the most matches.

The WTA rankings are based on a cumulative 52-week system that awards at least twice the number of points (2,000) for a major win as it does for any other title. But players can collect thousands of points by reaching the quarters, semis or finals at smaller tournaments week after week. So far in 2011, Wozniacki has appeared in 16 tournaments, winning five finals and 49 matches -- at least eight more than anyone else in the top five.

"At the Grand Slams, Caroline hasn't achieved the maximum of what she can achieve," Clijsters says, "but her consistency makes her stand out from a lot of other players. That's why she's No. 1."

Wozniacki has spent more weeks (45 and counting) at the top spot than Clijsters, Maria Sharapova, Venus Williams, Tracy Austin and Jennifer Capriati -- each of whom has won multiple majors. If Wozniacki wants to finally take home a Slam title of her own, she needs to show the same aggression she's shown at regular tour events (see her 6-1, 6-2 dismantling of Sharapova in the semifinals at Indian Wells in March).

"Even the one-off major winners like Li Na and Francesca Schiavone have won by being super brave," ESPN analyst Pam Shriver says."Wozniacki has not shown that brazen ability to perform in the pressure cauldron of a major. She needs to find her comfort zone and push it a little more with every part of her game."

The Dane's playing style is the antithesis of the one tennis fans have grown accustomed to since the hard-hitting Williams sisters stormed to prominence 12 years ago. While Serena and Venus overwhelm their opponents, Wozniacki outlasts. She is a master at defense, relying on superb movement and fitness to get the ball back, again and again and again, until her opponent finally runs out of gas and makes an error.

"I can stand there for hours and take my chances," Wozniacki says. "You have to be that 1 percent or 2 percent better physically so you have more power and energy left than your opponent when you go to a third set."

That may be a winning strategy week to week, but a Slam title requires seven victories strung together over a two-week period. If every point of every match is a marathon, as is often the case for Wozniacki, it's difficult for even the fittest athlete to win such a slog. Instead, she needs to be more aggressive with her forehand when she's under pressure and use it to put away some points faster.

"Caroline's a lover of the long point, but she doesn't have to be," analyst Mary Carillo said in May. "There are many times when you're thinking, Just pull the trigger already."

Evidently, Wozniacki's father and coach, Piotr, shares that sentiment. It's telling that the former professional soccer player recently reached out to Martina Navratilova for help with his daughter's game. The legend is not only one of the most aggressive attacking players ever but also someone known for quickly and decisively finishing points. While scheduling conflicts prevented Navratilova from officially signing on as one of Wozniacki's coaches, Piotr has pushed his daughter to add fire to her game.

That strategy shift has begun showing up on the court. In her loss at Wimbledon this summer, Wozniacki was decidedly bolder than usual, coming to the net 20 times. "The best feeling is when you finish a point at the net," she says. "It's a bit different for me, but it's something I'm trying to work on."

Hard work comes easy to Wozniacki. For most pros, going deep into the draw is physically and mentally exhausting. That's why so many of them gripe about the tour's grueling schedule and take weeks off at a time to stay healthy and focused. Wozniacki, though, deals with the grind better than anyone. She penciled 23 tournaments into her calendar at the start of this year, after playing 21 in 2010 and 25 in 2009. What's more, she has managed to stay mostly injury-free, although a recent shoulder injury forced her to withdraw from July's Swedish Open.

"It's tough to perform every week and do it well," she says. "Most people don't know how hard that is."

Instead, most people just call her game boring. It's a perception Wozniacki will be looking to change when she takes the court at the U.S. Open, where she reached the final in 2009 and the semifinals in 2010. Just don't hold your breath waiting for her to admit she's as hungry as her fans for that long-awaited major win.

"Who knows if I'll win a Grand Slam," she says. "I know I'll go out there and fight all I can and do my best. We just have to wait and see if that's good enough."

And if it isn't? Well, she'll still be No. 1.

Lindsay Berra is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine.

Lindsay Berra is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine.