Can Wozniacki Regain Lost Ground?

March 30, 2012
by Paula Vergara

Up until a few months ago, Caroline Wozniacki had been riding high at the No. 1 spot for 67 weeks. That was until Victoria Azarenka upped her game and won the Australian Open, knocking Wozniacki off the No. 1 pedestal.

Currently at No. 6 in the world, Wozniacki isn’t necessarily in a deep hole that she needs to claw her way out of. However, any player who reaches the No. 1 ranking, then falters, is automatically placed in the comeback category.

Since the Aussie Open, Wozniacki has achieved moderate success, advancing to the semis in two tournaments (Dubai and Miami). Her most recent brag-worthy victory came in the quarterfinal of the Sony Ericsson Open: A straight-sets win over Serena Williams--her first victory over the American in four attempts, and a big confidence boost for the Dane. Wozniacki was serving well throughout the match, and kept her error count low, which helped her to stay focused. In Thursday’s semifinal vs. Maria Sharapova, Wozniacki battled through a tough, three-set match that lasted over 2 1/2 hours. Sharapova seemed to be breezing through the opening set, taking a 4-1 lead, but her forehand and focus took a break, resulting in Wozniacki winning the next five games to take the lead. Sharapova fought back to take the second set. She managed to close out the match in the deciding set by holding serve, and booked her spot in the final of the Sony Ericsson Open.

Wozniacki was visibly perturbed as she disputed the call on match point when Sharapova’s second serve was called long by the linesman, which would have given Wozniacki the point due to a double fault. But chair umpire Kader Nouni overruled the call, giving the players an opportunity to replay the point, which gave Sharapova another chance to successfully close out the match at 40-30, which she did with an overhead winner. Wozniacki tried (and failed) to make her case to the umpire that he should give Sharapova time to challenge the point when it was called out, especially since Wozniacki had no challenges remaining. The television replay of the point showed the umpire was correct in his overrule. Wozniacki, who didn’t see the replay until after the match, exited the stadium without shaking the chair umpire's hand.

Where has Wozniacki gone wrong? Despite having 18 singles titles to her credit, she hasn’t won a tournament since August, 2011 in New Haven, and was unable to defend her title in Indian Wells just a few weeks ago. 

“I think she’s in a crucial 12-month period at the moment,” says ESPN’s Darren Cahill. “She’s gone away from, in my opinion, what made her a No. 1 player, which is an incredible defensive game. I feel like she’s lost a little bit of speed around the court. She needs to get back to being faster, and getting that ability to get those extra balls back into the court, and put the pressure on her opponents, and shrink her side of the court. I also believe that it’s tough by trying to develop a big forehand. She’s starting with her weight on the back foot, and she’s finishing with her weight on the back foot, and it’s pretty tough to develop a lot of power off that shot if you’re playing everything off the back foot.”

ESPN Analyst and U.S. Fed Cup Captain, Mary Joe Fernandez says that Wozniacki is going through a transition period, but has faith in her future.

“She’s looking fitter. She’s working on her game,” says Fernandez. “Once she gets her confidence back, I think were going to see her right back at the top because she’s so solid. She covers the court so well. Great anticipation skills. She’s won 18 titles and she’s only 21.”

Wozniacki isn’t the only WTA player to lose some ground over the past few months. Clijsters, Schiavone, Pavlyuchenkova, Wickmayer, Mattek-Sands, and Gajdosova are just a handful of players who have slid down the rankings ladder since the start of 2012.

You can safely argue that at age 21, Wozniacki hasn’t reached her potential as a player. As many have said before, her game needs to change in order to improve. Albert Einstein once said that the definition of insanity is "doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results." Fortunately for Wozniacki, she isn't insane, but rather, stuck in her comfort zone.

What’s next for the Dane? She won’t be defending her title in Charleston, which will give her a week to regroup.

At this stage of her career, it’s likely that Wozniacki might be better off at the No. 6 spot. The reason? Chasing the No. 1 position might be a bit easier for her than holding it. And when she does make her comeback to the No. 1 spot, she’ll be ready for it the second time around.

Venus Rising Again?

March 7, 2012
by Paula Vergara

Some may say that it's too soon to tell, but 5-time Wimledon champ Venus Williams may finally be ready for her ascent. She has her sights set on the 2012 Olympics, which was made evident by her Fed Cup participation in February (mandatory for Olympic eligibility). And with the 2012 Olympic games just four months away, Venus will be making a serious push to get her game back to where it needs to be.

For Venus, it's no longer a question of being able to climb back to the pinnacle of women's tennis. The question is, can she even qualify for the event that represents the pinnacle of tennis? Venus won the gold medal in singles at the 2000 Sydney Olympics, as well as two gold medals in women's doubles. She still holds the record for the most number of Olympic gold medals of any female tennis player. In 2000, Williams also became the second player in tennis history to win Olympic gold medals in both singles and doubles at the same Olympic Games. Helen Mills Moody was the first, back in 1924.

In order for Venus to qualify for direct acceptance into the upcoming London Olympics, she has to be one of the top six ranked American players by June 11, 2012. The Olympic Committee bases their player selection on world rankings as of that date. Currently at No. 136, Venus is the 10th highest ranked American in singles. Even if she wanted to play mixed doubles at the London Olympics, she would have to be entered into the singles or doubles competition to qualify.

Without a doubt, Venus has a steep mountain to climb, but still has the competitive drive to keep going. Truth be told, most tennis careers have a shelf life of 12-15 years. At the age of 31, Venus' tennis career has spanned an astonishing 17 years.

Her biggest stumbling block moving forward? Sjorgen's Syndrome, battling a difficult to treat illness, which doesn't exactly put the odds for success in her favor.

In the very short-term, Venus is making progress, but her recovery is slow.

"I'm still fighting fatigue. I'm getting better," said Venus after her successful Fed Cup run in February. "I mean, it just takes a while to kind of find the right medicines that work, to get stronger.  Once you do have a chance to get on the court, it takes at least six weeks to build a nice baseline so you just don't get hurt. The big push for me is the Olympics this year, so I can get back on the court and get my ranking up.  If I'm healthy, I'm not worried about my ranking. I think I can hit the ball. It's just about my body cooperating.  It's about being able to play matches in a row. Right now I'm not sure how much I can do with that, but we'll see."

Venus has entered The Family Circle Cup  (Charleston), a tournament that she won in 2004, but hasn't played since 2009. The Sony Ericsson Open (Miami) is also on her schedule, which she won 3 times, and made the final in 2010 (losing to Clijsters). She just recently signed on to play World Team Tennis for the Washington Kastles in July, just prior to the London Olympics.

Whatever Venus Williams achieves on the court moving forward, one thing is certain: A legend is always a legend, no matter how far they have to climb back.