20 October, 2011

Erase the Wozsterisk

It might feel like we just left the sunny, bright blue rectangles and liquid heat of Melbourne, but in a little over two weeks the 2011 WTA season will be over.  The WTA Year End Championships will debut with the world's top eight players in Istanbul next week, followed by the Consolation Games, with much of the next 16 in Bali a week later.

We've seen surprises aplenty from the women this year, Na Li reaching two major finals and coming good at Roland Garros; Petra Kvitova solidifying her young gunnette status winning the Venus (aka the big plate) at Wimbledon; Serena Williams on the razor's edge of life and death this spring and then razor's edge of calm and rage just a few months later.  It surely hasn't been a dull ten months in women's tennis, even if there hasn't been a dominant force to galvanize fans...other than the Wozsterisk.

With the exception of a solitary week where Kim Clijsters, often playing brilliantly when she managed to answer the bell, wound up as the World No. 1, 21 year old Caroline Wozniacki's reign atop women's tennis has gone undisturbed for 55 weeks.  Love her or disregard her, this is a truly impressive feat.  To wit, Wozniacki's now been No. 1 longer than Clijsters, Maria Sharapova and Jennifer Capriati combined; three multiple-major winners all destined for the Hall of Fame.  In other words, as we New Yorkers would saying while flashing a crude gesture, she's got your asterisk right here...

For all the harping on what she hasn't won, beauty and blondeness aside, the (almost) Great Dane is far from a neo-Kournikovian figure.  She's amassed eighteen WTA tour singles titles in her career, six this year, including WTA Premier (think ATP Masters) events in Dubai and Indian Wells.  She reached two major semifinals (both on hardcourts) in the same year for the first time in her career and has an impressive 58-13 match record on the year.

But let's be honest, the elephant has not left the room, let alone the building.

Wozniacki's not a major champion.  She's never lifted the big hardware on Saturday afternoon in any of the sport's capitals and so, at least among the chattering classes, the Wozsterisk persists.  "How can you be No. 1 in the world if you've never won a major title," they ask.  I think that a better question is, "How can you stay there if you've never won a major title?"

A little history is necessary.  Part of the reason Wozniacki has taken it on the chin is that her stock has been unfairly pegged to a couple of fellow slamless No. 1s, Dinara Safina, whose body seems to have chased her into retirement and Jelena Jankovic, who lost her mojo pretty much as soon as she reached the top spot.  Wozniacki's also often mentioned in the same breath as one-time men's No. 2 Andy Murray, which is a seemingly more appropriate comparison.  Like Murray, Wozniacki has been consistently at or near the top of the game, her game lacks the power of most of her more celebrated rivals and she has won the biggest prizes outside of the majors, but just hasn't gotten over the hump on the biggest stages.

The huge difference between Wozniacki and those of the three players to whom she's most often compared?  Her competition.  Murray idled behind Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal since 2008.  As soon as the once-indomitable Federer began to falter, Novak Djokovic began playing almost superhuman tennis continuing to keep Murray at bay.  In 2008 and 2009 when Jankovic and Safina respectively took their brief turns atop the WTA leaderboard, the Williams sisters combined to win four of the eight majors played, Jankovic and Safina lost three finals.  So, take a look at the four women who claimed majors this year Kim Clijsters, Na Li, Petra Kvitova and Samantha Stosur and you'll notice a few of things that all bode well for the (almost) Great Dane.

First, Wozniacki's record against the women that won majors this year is 7-9.  She doesn't dominate the major champions as some would want for a world No. 1, but the Woz's career record against them has an any given Sunday quality and not in a hail mary sense.  Wozniacki is more than capable of beating these women, some days things go her way and some days they don't, but she can certainly beat the players who've claimed majors she's sought.

Secondly, only one of these women is likely to be a factor say, three years from now, that's Kvitova, who's the same age as Wozniacki.  Wozniacki is 3-1 against the Czech Wimbledon champion, the sole loss on grass at Wimbledon back in 2010.

So, let's look at the other side of the coin, who else then?  If not Wozniacki, who else would be your "legitimate" No. 1?  Maria Sharapova?  She has the pedigree, she has the profile, she also has perhaps the longest case of the service yips in tennis history.  Serena Williams?  I'd still say she's the best player on the tour, but she played 5 tournaments all year, just turned 30 and had an ugly turn at the US Open (not her confrontation with Eva Asderaki--who cares, but her listless final against Samantha Stosur).  How about Vera Zvonareva?  She's had a very good couple of years, but she's never won a major either...and she's busy hiding under a towel during changeovers.  A few more months of results like we've seen from Petra Kvitova this year and I'd make a case for the Czech, but she needs to prove that she's more Navratilova than Sukova at this point.

Before the WTA and ATP computers, the de facto world rankings were year end polls, exercises largely based on a player's success at the majors or lack thereof.  To an extent, the major mindset has persisted, even though tools are now in place to accurately measure a player's entire season versus arbitrarily deciding that only eight weeks of majors matter.

The truth though is that the majors are still the primary measuring stick of the game and most of the players who've been No. 1 have won majors too.  But ask yourself, this.  If it's not Caroline at No. 1, then who?  I look around at the other contenders, then back at Caroline, back at the field, back at Caroline, smirk to myself and erase the Wozsterisk.  She's your No. 1, deal with it.


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