Tennis

Wozniacki strong to the finish in desert

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Matt Cronin

Matt Cronin is a senior editor at Inside Tennis magazine and the co-owner of the award-winning TennisReporters.net.

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INDIAN WELLS, Calif.

Professional tennis often is thought of mainly as a mental game – and to a slightly lesser extent, a technical game – but with each passing year, it’s become more physical, which is largely why 20-year-old Caroline Wozniacki holds the No. 1 ranking.

On Sunday, she won her 14th title by taking the prestigious BNP Paribas Open title with a 6-1, 2-6, 6-3 victory over Marion Bartoli. It is only the Dane’s second WTA Premier mandatory tournament crown, but perhaps her most important one.

She came into the tournament in the Californian desert with her top spot at risk and never faltered. She crushed a woman whom she never had beaten, Maria Martinez Sanchez, in the third round; took the legs out from another promising player, No. 22 Alisa Kleybanova, in three sets in the quarterfinals; watched her close friend, the talented Victoria Azarenka, retire once again from a match with an injury; completely out-steadied three-time Grand Slam champion Maria Sharapova in a mind-numbing 6-1, 6-2 victory; and then withstood a creative and ambitious charge from Bartoli in the final, who said afterward that she cried “tears of exhaustion.”

Caroline Wozniacki

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“She’s going to make you hit three, four, five great shots before you win the point, when usually you just have to maybe hit one or two,” Bartoli said. “So you have to really be consistent on your groundstrokes, put some power on it, but be consistent on the power. It’s never too easy, obviously.”

Wozniacki said she cannot remember a match when she felt her body quit on her, even saying that when she fell to the court with cramps, writhing in agony at the 2009 WTA Championships, it was her mind that failed, not her body. If you compare Wozniacki to the elite members of her generation – Azarenka, Kleybanova, Agnieszka Radwanska, Dominica Cibulkova and Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova – one of the critical differences is that she is rarely up and down and you almost never see her huffing and puffing in long three-setters.

“I am paying so much attention to my conditioning, and to be in great shape in my fitness is a very big part of my training,” she said. “I’ve won a lot of matches that way. I can keep playing for hours and hours. It’s definitely a good sign for me when I can see the opponent getting a little more tired. We had a lot of long rallies, but I felt like I recovered maybe a little bit faster than she did. That’s a good feeling to have on my side.”

While Wozniacki is the queen of Danish sports, she has Polish roots. Her mother and father were born in Poland but decided to stay in Denmark after her father retired from the Danish soccer team that he was playing for. Just like former No. 1 Martina Hingis – another Eastern European who emigrated to Western Europe (from Slovakia to Switzerland) – Wozniacki wins matches with her legs.

Hingis often was praised for being an intelligent player with remarkable touch, which she was, but a critical part of her run to five Grand Slam titles and a long stint at No. 1 was the fact that she could run her foes into the ground. Like Wozniacki, Hingis was born with thick, strong thighs. Like Wozniacki, Hingis’ two-handed backhand was her main weapon, while her forehand was her weakness. The Dane is taller and has a stronger upper body than Hingis, but she is also a generation younger, and with every set of new players comes a couple more inches of height and thicker muscles.

Hingis rose to the top of the rankings at a younger age than Wozniacki did, winning five Grand Slams before she turned 20 and 23 overall titles before she turned 21. But outwardly, she was much harder on herself than Wozniacki is and drove herself into the ground when she wasn’t able to dominate anymore. Wozniacki can be hard on herself, but it seems that at each tournament she plays, she is fresh mentally and physically. She has played afraid at times against some of the elite veterans, notably against Vera Zvonareva at the 2010 U.S. Open and against Li Na late in her loss in the Australian Open semis, but she has picked herself up again and kept churning.

She may not have Hingis’ creativity, and we have yet to see her killer instinct at the majors, but for the past two weeks at Indian Wells, she has turned plenty of points around by mixing spins and direction. Plus, she’s a dedicated student of the game (What other player has three coaches?) and soaks up suggestions.

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“I watched so many of [Hingis’] matches, and she was such a big role model for me,” Wozniacki said. “The things that I liked about her game were that she was thinking so well on the court. She could play aggressively, but she was not a power player. She didn’t have as much power as some of the other girls, but still she knew how to take advantage of the others’ power. She knew how to do angled drop shots, she could play high if she needed to. She was a very intelligent player. She wasn’t only relying on her power, like some other players, but that she found a way to win even though she was not maybe as strong.”

Since her Aussie Open debacle, when she didn’t hit one winner in the third set against Li, Wozniacki has gone 16-1, including Fed Cup, suffering only a loss to Zvonareva in the Doha final when she had played nearly every day for two weeks. Kim Clijsters, with her recent sterling résumé at the big tournaments, is still the best player on tour, but the Belgian is suffering from a shoulder injury which forced her to default a match at Indian Wells. She’s also questionable for Miami, and with both Williams sisters sidelined with illness and injury, Justine Henin having retired again, and former Slam champs Sharapova and Svetlana Kuznetsova struggling, the smiling Dane whom one of her coaches calls “Little Miss Sunshine” is in prime position to win both at Miami and, possibly, her first major when the French Open rolls around.

One thing is for sure, she’s not going to falter on the red clay because of sheer exhaustion. Bartoli thinks that Wozniacki is a lock to win a major.

“Absolutely,” Bartoli said. “When you see the way she’s playing on every single match, she’s so consistent all the time. She rarely has a poor day. She’s always coming to the court and having almost the same kind of performance. I honestly cannot see why she doesn’t win a Grand Slam. It’s just a matter of time before she will get more than one, I’m sure.”

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