Caroline Wozniacki, the now dethroned #1 player in the world, has received much criticism for her passive play and inability to beat the other top players in grand slam tournaments. Most experts (and other critics) believe that her steady game cannot stand up against the big power players when they are in form. This view has been expressed on air at every grand slam over the past two years by tennis insiders such as Pam Shriver, Martina Navratilova, Mary Jo Fernandez, Patrick McEnroe, and Chris Evert. Five-time grand slam champion Martina Hingis commented on Wozniacki’s need to add more power and strategy in a recent article in USA Today, which echoed previous comments made by Shriver and Fernandez on ESPN.com prior to the 2011 US Open. The general belief is that over the course of two weeks and seven matches in a grand slam event, the odds are that she will eventually meet up with such a player and lose. Wozniacki’s history over the past six slams has largely proven the critics right.
I am not a “tennis expert,” but I play the game and have been an avid follower of professional tennis for over 30 years. I have seen all different types and styles of player win grand slam events. I mostly concur with the experts noted above, but I also believe that to win a grand slam and regain the #1 ranking, Wozniacki’s needed improvements are minor. Furthermore, Wozniacki showed signs at the 2012 Australian Open that she has already begun to address her shortcomings, and that her first slam title may come sooner rather than later.
Wozniacki has become one of the top players in the world through hitting very few unforced errors, excellent foot speed, great court sense, superb conditioning, and mental toughness. Also, her combination of accuracy and power from her backhand is unequaled on the tour. (Let’s not forget she injured her left wrist in Sydney right before the Australian Open, which likely affected her power on this shot during the tourney.) These strengths have carried her to 12 tournament championships over the past two years, including a couple of big ones at Indian Wells and Beijing. However, it appears she needs more to win the really big ones when facing extremely talented big hitters such as Petra Kvitova, Serena Williams, and Kim Clijsters. Specifically, she needs to take the ball earlier, flatten her forehand and hit down the line, improve her serve, and become more comfortable at the net.
One definite improvement on display at the Australian Open was Wozniacki’s serve. Through her five matches, she cracked 16 aces and only 5 double faults. These numbers compare favorably to the four semifinalists at the event. Only Kvitova equaled Caroline’s 16 aces, and none of them had fewer than 12 double faults through the first five rounds. More importantly, Caroline’s second serve appears to be greatly improved. This was evidenced by her two second serve aces against Clijsters when facing break points. I believe these points show her intent to be more fearless on the court.
While her serve is more than adequate to compete with the best, Wozniacki’s major liability is her forehand. As often noted, she tends to hit too many looping cross-court forehands, which allows her opponents to easily predict her shot direction and gives them plenty of time to get in position to return the ball (often with considerable power). She needs to flatten her shot and also change direction more often. The inside-out forehand, which I’ve rarely seen her use, would greatly improve her game. Caroline doesn’t really need to hit her forehand with more power if she just makes these subtle adjustments. A flatter forehand with more misdirection will enable her to play closer to the baseline and allow her to step into the court for more easy putaways. This should also help her grow more comfortable at the net and become a complete player. If she can make these adjustments while continuing to limit unforced errors, she could become a truly dominant player.
Only when Wozniacki was down a set and 2-5 in the quarterfinals against Clijsters did she start to hit her forehand with more authority and play closer to the baseline, and she almost pulled out the match. In fact, she was three points from the set at 4-3 in the tiebreak, and few would have bet against her to lose the third set given her fitness.
During her post match interview, Wozniacki stated that a player learns more from losing than winning. For her sake, I hope she learned from the way she finished that loss.