Caroline Wozniacki, the Next No. 1 in Women's Tennis Or...?

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Caroline Wozniacki, the Next No. 1 in Women's Tennis Or...?
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Danish Caroline Wozniacki, still only 19 years old, has had a phenomenal 2009, advancing from 12th to fourth in the world—the highlight being her US-Open final loss where Little Miss Sunshine played another audience favourite, the reborn Kim Clijsters.

Before that, she enjoyed incredible progress as well, progressing from 237th to 64th to 12th to 4th in the course of 2006-2009 year end rankings. Pretty good for a teenager to say the least and it earned her the 2008 WTA newcomer of the year ahead of Azarenka. 

This year, however, is a different matter. Now she got to the top, the questions are—can she stay there? Can she rise even further? Is she a future No. 1? Or "merely" a consistent top-10 player? Or rather the next Ivanovic?

I doubt that we see an Ivanovic scenario. Wozniacki is an extremely determined young woman and her great talent was evident early. A 12-year-old Wozniacki told Danish television that she wanted to become number one in tennis.

That is still the dream and the goal today and now she is closer than ever before. The 2008 Tour newcomer of the year has refused to make specific public targets for her ranking this year and there is really no reason why she should.

However, as things are now, she might have trouble keeping up her ranking. With the two Belgians returned and Sharapova also trying to make it back to the top, women's tennis has become an all together different ballgame and much harder to excel in. Sharapova is still a big if, but both Henin and Clijsters have made clear that they mean business.  

Wozniacki is still fourth, but the difference between Safina (second at 6480) and Dementieva (seventh at 4855) is not too great—all trailing Serena at 8645. Henin still hasn't got a ranking and Clijsters and Sharapova also still have some climbing to do. 

But let's not only discuss the ranking points. Let's discuss the potential. What has gotten Wozniacki up there together with the very best? Still being a teenager, she has plenty of time to improve every aspect of her game. Her strengths are her speed, her reliant, strong double-fisted backhand and above everything else—her mental game and fighting spirit (albeit not of late, see below).

She hardly ever gives up on a ball and has the ability to focus when the going gets tough. One notable exception to this, was this year's Australian Open, where she lost to Na Li in the fourth round on a day where her game and fighting spirit seemed off for most of the time. But this wasn't typical for her.

If anybody doubts her fighting spirit, take a re-look at last year's WTA championships in Doha, where she won a heroic almost three hour fight against Zvonareva to ensure a place in the semis.

She battled through pains and cramps that made her cry in the final game. Having used her medical timeout, there was no other way to win it than to fight through it - so she did. In the semis, after three matches played on injuries, she eventually had to hand the match to Serena one and a half sets down. 

Concerning her game and game tactics, she is more of a pusher than a basher. She can be a pusher due to her excellent speed, footwork, relatively good placement on the court and consistent ground-strokes on both sides, especially the double-fisted backhand which is her greatest stroke.

She gets almost everything back at the opponent and forces her to hit that one extra stroke—a tactic that can get you remarkably far in the women's game. In a way, it reminds me a  bit of Nadal when he first came on to the scene—chasing every ball, not making many unforced errors, but also not hitting that many winners.

Wozniacki hardly ever has a positive winner-unforced errors count, but she gets enough back to make the opponent lose the match by committing more unforced errors than her. Last year's US Open was a case in point (against Oudin and Kuznetsova for example), but this tactic proved obsolete against the well-playing Clijsters, who simply outhit Miss Sunshine and didn't commit enough unforced errors to let her prosper.

That said, getting to the final was a huge step for Wozniacki as critics already were starting to ask why she couldn't perform in the slams (never got beyond the fourth round before that final, but then again, is that so bad for a teenager ranked around 10 at the time?).

Getting to the final proved that she doesn't choke at Slams—we are yet to see her getting into the second week consecutively, but her mental game should not be what's stopping her. 

Notwithstanding her US-Open success, she only averaged ten winners per match as opposed to 25-27 winners per match by players like Serena and Dementieva. She admits she can improve, but won't put her finger on as to the where. So let's see. Her serve and especially the second serve could get a lot better.

The second serve is way too easy to attack and the women's tour has many great returners who can punish that. Her forehand is consistent, but not a weapon yet. She hardly hits winners with it and when the going gets tough, it often becomes too short, tentative or error prone.

Her backhand on the other hand is brilliant, but she can still use it more aggressively. Against second-tier players, a defensive tactic can be more than enough. But in the matches between the top-contenders, the aggressor usually comes out on top, so she does need to add some more aggression and attacking skills to her game.  

She is a clever player and, as Murray in the men's game, no one is more aware of her shortcomings than her (but both have the natural instinct to stay back and rely on their defense—obviously Murray is a step further in his career, but in this respect they face a similar critique and challenge—and both tried to put in more offense at the Australian Open).

In this year's Australian Open we saw a somewhat more offensive side of her—attacking more and coming to the net more often.

However, her results this year, hasn't matched her ambitions. An exhibition match loss to Sharapova and an early loss to Na Li predated the Australian Open, where she again lost to Na Li—being somehow out of focus—not putting in her usual fight. Same thing happened in Dubai against Shahar Pe'er.

Has she lost her momentum? Former Danish top players argue that she hasn't adjusted to the new situation—no longer being the hunter, now being the hunted—and claiming that her hunger seems missing this year. That certainly was a possible conclusion seeing those matches, but knowing her professionalism and will to reach her goals, I feel confident that the hunger will return to her.

Bottom line really is, does she have the game to match Serena, Henin, Clijsters, Kuznetsova, Dementieva, Venus, and a confident Safina and an injury-free Sharapova? Is she the one with the most potential in the new generation? What about the more aggressive and powerful Azarenka? Or Wickmayer? Or Lisicki?

Well, it is hard to blame a teenager for not matching the game of a 12-double or seven-double Slam winner. But as she's been playing so far this year, she does not belong in the top five as of today and  I do predict she will have a hard time keeping her position in the top five for the next couple of months. She lacks a big killer weapon.

However, a good run at RG or Wimbledon might propel her back up as she didn't excel there last year. She does belong in the top ten and on the verge on top five, but she needs to improve those minor shortcomings in her game to stay in the top five and—in time—improve further.

Playing great defense without the necessary winners, she won't win the majority of the matches against the others in top ten, nor against an aggressive Petrova, Lisicki or Wickmayer. It's hard to see her up one set and 4-0 against Serena in a Slam quarter on hard court as Azarenka was.

Azarenka's power matches her peers. Wozniacki doesn't—yet. She hasn't got Henin's hand, angles and touch, so she need more power and bigger weapons to stay on top.

Good thing is—she knows that and is still young enough to make those changes. Short term problem—it takes time to make these changes in her game—time that she hasn't got too much of in a fully booked tennis calendar. 2010 prediction? A year end rank clearly in top 10, but no better than fourth—probably between fourth and eight. Long term prediction?

Little Miss Sunshine will get to smile more often than not and will be a serious contender for the Slams and the top-rankings, if not in 2010, then in the years to follow when she hits her prime, matures as a player and develops bigger weapons. She is too talented and determined not to. No. 1? Perhaps when Serena retires and the Belgians re-retires.

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