Caroline Wozniacki has the cheese, and the rest of the WTA is trying to find it in vain.
With each passing week there is more reason to believe that Caroline Wozniacki might extend her stay at the top of the WTA rankings well into the year. In addition to the 20-year-old's solid play of late, the recent shoulder ailments of Kim Clijsters, the retirement of Justine Henin and the absence of both Williams sisters are all working in her favor.
Yesterday's episode of trench warfare -- a 6-1, 2-6, 6-3 victory over Frenchwoman Marion Bartoli at the BNP Paribas open in California -- conducted mostly from the baseline, and conducted mostly on Wozniacki's terms, was another example of why Wozniacki is so damn hard to beat.
And the fact that she is so damn hard to beat is precisely the reason that it's unlikely that anybody will knock her from her perch at the top of the WTA rankings for some time.
While there are critics who say that Wozniacki's lack of power is a sign of weakness, it appears to be more of a strength at the moment.
Because the more that Wozniacki keeps the ball in play, the more her opponents remain lost in the maze, searching for a way to win points like tired mice would search for cheese. They become confused, frustrated, unnerved; they are forced into a state of desperation when they realize that their opponent is not human. No, she's a robot. A ball machine. A devil incarnate.
Her opponents -- Bartoli, Sharapova, Schiavone, you name it -- quickly realize that they must step outside their comfort zone to have a chance to win. Meanwhile, Wozniacki simply must do what she's been doing, and wait for them to crack.
Usually, they do.
Wozniacki isn't unbeatable, but players who want to beat her have to walk a very thin tightrope in a very stiff wind to do so. Because of Wozniacki's uncanny -- freakish might be a better word -- ability to keep the ball in play, and to do so with depth and precision, her opponents are routinely forced to ignore what their good judgment tells them, and take their shot at playing low percentage tennis in a high percentage way.
Usually, it ends up being a losing proposition. Nobody can play low percentage tennis in a high percentage way for very long. Eventually, fatigue or frustration sets in, and the court starts to tilt in Wozniacki's favor.
Marion Bartoli (in a supreme effort, might I add) had great success with the drop shot in the second set yesterday, and it does appear to be a great strategy against Wozniacki. But the very essence of the drop shot is that it is a risky ploy. Rather than being a surefire way to get off the treadmill that Wozniacki puts her opponents on, repetitive attempts at the dropper only seem to be a recipe for disaster.
To play Wozniacki, and to engage in baseline tennis against her, must truly be maddening. She is a master of the gentle ground stroke, and her indefatigable footwork makes her a master from virtually anywhere on the court and against balls hit at any pace. The longer the rallies go, the more her opponents want to just smash the ball -- somewhere, anywhere -- where Caroline can't retrieve it.
More often than not, that somewhere is far outside the lines.
Even as the critics banter fills the tennis pages of the sports section with reasons that Wozniacki isn't as good as her ranking -- the lack of a true weapon, the lack of a true heavyweight in the WTA's top ten without Serena, the fact that she's lucky (see Kim's withdrawal from Indian Wells) -- if you read between the lines you'll see the writing is already on the wall as far as the 2011 WTA season is concerned.
There's a new sheriff in town, and even if she only has a BB gun, she's a pretty sure shooter.