Wednesday, May 18, 2011

What's Up With Woz?

Caroline's still Caroline, but the rest of the tour appears unimpressed. Does she have a shot at Roland Garros?
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As many of you know, I've been in Caroline Wozniacki's corner for much of the year. I felt that she earned her No. 1 ranking by winning matches — in spite of the effusive flow of vitriol regarding the legitimacy of her game — and because of that she became a rebellious figure to me. People kept saying Wozniacki wasn't any good, and she kept proving them wrong, and I liked that about her.

That being said, Woz looks to be in big trouble heading into Roland Garros. You'd think it'd be the opposite for a player like Wozniacki on the European clay, because she has crafted a game that depends on patience, consistency and counterpunching — all qualities that have enabled clay-court gurus to thrive in the past. But something is very amiss in Wozniacki's game at the moment, and given her recent results it's hard to deny. She's been brushed aside by Julia Goerges (twice) and Maria Sharapova (finally) in her last three events this spring in Stuttgart, Madrid and Rome.

We all know that Wozniacki has always lacked the big power game so there's nothing new to speak of there, but she looks more overmatched on the clay, because her opponents have more time to set up, hit big, and get Caroline on the run. Her opponents also appear to be a little wiser to Wozniacki's game. They've been much better about getting to the net and finishing points there. Time and time again Wozniacki has been forced to throw up weak lobs that can be taken out of the air and ripped into the open court. Now instead of letting Caroline reset the point, her more aggressive opponents are taking matters into their own hands and moving in for the kill shot.

Footwork has never been an issue for Wozniacki, but on clay she seems to lose her speed advantage a bit. She isn't able to use her quick changes of direction in her favor on the clay; instead she seems more prone than ever to power combos that move her far into one corner and force her way out of position for the next shot.

Wozniacki was one of the most frustrating players to play against earlier in the year, but all that frustration seems to have motivated her opponents to put in their time hitting overheads, drive volleys and basically preparing to attack whenever she's out of position and about to throw up some of her patented junk.

Perhaps I'm wrong about all this. Stranger things have certainly happened. Perhaps it's just a temporary thing. Perhaps Goerges and Sharapova played out of their minds. Wozniacki is a fighter and I wouldn't count her as a non-factor for the French Open, but based on her clay-court results this spring, I think it's going to be a stretch for her to reach the semis of the world's only clay-court Grand Slam for the first time in her career.

Furthermore, the more that WTA players get used to playing against Wozniacki, the more imperative it will be for her to develop some new wrinkles in her game to keep them off balance. At the moment, it seems like she's resting on her laurels a bit; thinking that what has gotten her to No. 1 is good enough.

But you must evolve to thrive on the Tour. By allowing herself to constantly get pushed around by bigger hitters, Wozniacki is basically giving control of the match to her opponents. It's their match to win or lose. All Woz can do is get the ball back and hope that it's good enough.

I think Caroline Wozniacki is in danger at the moment. Just months ago I thought she had one of the brightest futures of anybody on the Tour.

Check with me in three weeks and I'll likely have another take.

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