Caroline Wozniacki won’t beat you with power.
She doesn’t have a booming serve to guarantee her easy points. She won’t intimidate you with her reckless aggression, nor will she take time away with forays to the net. Through her struggles during this year’s clay court season, it has become readily apparent that the source of the former No.1’s prior successes laid almost exclusively on one concept: belief.
Far from a simple “I think, therefore I am” scenario, the Dane’s belief was two-fold. For one, she believed in herself, in her fitness and consistency. An underrated athlete, Wozniacki could run all day, tracking down what would be a winner against any other player, and force her opponent to hit one extra ball. At her best, she did everything well which, against her more combustible rivals, was good enough to take her through most of the matches she played over the course of 18 months.
This leads to the second, more changeable part of Wozniacki’s sense of belief. She not only believed in her own ability, but she also believed in the inability of others. Though her opponents could hit more winners and endear crowds with their flashier styles, Caroline was consistent, maddeningly so. Even with her back against the wall, she was content to keep grinding until she had worn her opponents down into a pile of frustration over what appeared to be wasted opportunities.
When trying to fend off the criticism she faced as a Slamless No. 1, Wozniacki once quipped, “if I don’t have a weapon, then what do the others have? Since I’m No. 1, I must do something right. I think they’re not actually criticizing me. I think the other players should be offended.”
To a large degree, that was true. More often than not, Wozniacki figuratively (and literally) put the ball in her opponent’s court, seemingly begging them to put away the high ball she would plant in the middle of the court. Time and again, however, the big hitters missed that ball at a match’s most crucial junctures. They would get overexcited, they would get nervous, they would get tentative. Either way, they would hit the ball out and Wozniacki would go on to win the match.
But in the last year, something changed. The big hitters stopped missing. They began to grow in their own belief, chipping away at Caroline’s confidence in the process and causing her game to regress as a result. Now lacking her once unshakable on-court calm, she still goes for as much (or as little) as ever, but the errors have begun to pile up, allowing players like Bojana Jovanovski leverage to borrow against her own blistering groundstrokes.
Against this compromised version of Wozniacki, more risk pays off. Locked in a first set tiebreaker, the young Serb played emphatic tennis, with five of her seven points ending on a winner. Jovanovski parlayed this momentum into a 3-0 lead in the second set, and even had two chances for a double break.
For a moment, though, it still looked like Wozniacki maintained a degree of mental ascendency over her competition. She steadied her game and made Jovanovski think about that which she was on the verge of doing: beating a top 10 player at a major tournament. Even as Jovanovski took the lead again, there were questions about whether the more mentally fragile Serb could close the deal as she served for the match. More surprising than the upset itself, Jovanovski played a calm, drama-free game to serve out the match to 15, ending Wozniacki’s clay court season with an abysmal 3-5 record (including her two wins on Charleston’s green clay).
There will be those who will look to Wozniacki’s shaken confidence as the sole contributor to a loss like this, but attention must be equally paid to the young woman who followed up a nail-biter of a win over Wozniacki in Rome with a decisive victory in Paris. The Dane is not playing with the same ruthless efficiency of two years ago, but the ball was as much in Jovanovski’s court as ever. Perhaps sick and tired of missing when it mattered most, the unseeded Serb got out of her head and bundled the struggling Wozniacki out of the tournament. For Wozniacki, there is an air of tragic irony to lose in this way. After all, it wasn’t about Jovanovski’s ability to hit her opponent off the court.
It was that Jovanovski believed she could.