After a decade of ups and downs, the tennis player Caroline Wozniacki won the 2018 Australian Open. It wasn't just the accomplishment that was in itself remarkable. It was also remarkable because her story reminds us so much of a classical evolutionary tale we know from the world of great narratives. Here is Wozniacki's career in four acts, narrated by tennis aficionado Anders Haahr.
You've likely noticed that the tennis player Caroline Wozniacki won an important tennis match on the weekend. You likely don't have the big picture of what makes the accomplishment so meaningful, or why it happened at this moment after a decade of ups and downs for the Danish tennis star. So Zetland now presents Wozniacki's career as a drama in four acts. Hollywood couldn't done it better. What we're dealing with is so classical an evolutionary story that it draws parallels with everything from Lightning McQueen and the The Little Prince to the story of Parsifal and the Holy Grail.
So, without further ado:
Act One: Onward and upward (1996-2010)On a summers day in 1996, Anna and Piotr Wozniacki, two Polish immigrants, were playing tennis in Køge. They had their daughter Caroline, just turned six, along, so she was exiled to the wall, where she entertained herself by hitting a ball against it. The ball kept coming back. She enjoyed it. It was easy for her. When she was seven, her father hired a private professional coach, and as an eleven-year-old, Caroline's week was constructed in such a way that she had free from tennis on Tuesdays, but otherwise played every day, often several times a day, with physical interval and quickness training layered on top.
Wozniacki's early years are characterised by an indomitable work ethic and an unspoiled joy of competing. The duel. No chance of a tie. You against me. One winner. Whomever or whatever little Wozniacki faced, however hopelessly behind she was, she ran and toiled and hit as if there was nothing more important in the world.
Everything was new and untouched. Wozniacki travelled around with her racquet in a bag like another Parsifal, who, from his upbringing in the forest, stepped out into the world naive and innocent. At the age of 14 she won both the senior Danish championship and one of the world's biggest junior tennis tournaments, the World Super Junior Tennis Championships in Osaka.
We're dealing with a teenager's self-confidence and vigour here, drawing nourishment from a wonderful, naive view of the world, a simple, one-dimensional understanding of reality that enables an undisturbed focus on the ball, on the next shot. Blinkers and the joy of playing combined.
Wozniacki won her first professional tournament in Stockholm shortly after her 18th birthday, and then New Haven, then Tokyo, every day a new place, new experiences, first-time experiences, fresh eyes, completely in the moment. At 19, she played herself to the final of the US Open, one of the four Grand Slam tournaments that tower over all others in prestige and prize money. And the year after she moved into the number one spot in the world rankings. There were no limits to what could happen. As the Swedish tennis star Mats Wilander formulated it in New York:
"Wozniacki keeps getting better and better. Where will it end? It's impossible to say. She's still playing tennis without knowing how good she can be. So she thinks she can win every match. There are no limits to her self-confidence. She hasn't realised her own limitations, which is simply the most important thing."
But Wozniacki would soon experience how difficult it is to be the best and get better at the same time.
Act Two: Stagnation and success (2010-2012)The two seasons that Caroline spent as world number one are often described as the best of her career, a sort of high point against which all her subsequent accomplishments were to be measured. That's a misunderstanding. They were sad. Just as sad as they were unavoidable.
For just as Parsifal from the woods attained a position at the Round Table, Wozniacki now sat on the tennis throne. On the one hand, she accomplished impressive things. In less than a year-and-a-half she won 12 WTA tournaments: Beijing, Tokyo, Indian Wells, Dubai, Montréal, big titles in an amount no competitor was close to matching. She signed huge contracts with Rolex, Sony Ericsson, Turkish Airlines, Oriflame and Yonex.
But precisely the contract with Yonex illustrates the lost innocence. Wozniacki was happy with her Babolat racquet. She was secure with it. She'd won with it. In the meantime, she'd become world famous. Yonex offered her a more lucrative contract, but, even though the Japanese sent off a small army of engineers to work with Wozniacki to build her a racquet as close to her old one as possible, she never became comfortable with her Yonex equipment. But she became rich.
At this point, the Dane was estimated to be the world's ninth most marketable athlete, and that was exploited. Her yearly earnings approached 80 million kroner (around US $14 million), of which a small part was, of course, prize money.
Wozniacki was still playing good tennis. And she lived high of the awe she was held in by lesser-ranked opponents. A pattern began to emerge: they came charging out on the court with great optimism and power. They hammered away at every ball, determined to hit through the wall the Dane was known to be. Then they hit their heads against it. Wozniacki got almost every ball back, and, before long, discouragement seeped into the opponents' faces and game. Attempts at winners became more and more desperate, and the number of unforced errors accumulated.
So Wozniacki held on to her number one spot. She held on to her game style. She stood still. As the ageing tennis player and creative artist Torben Ullrich put it:
"The temptation of winning is almost always there. But 'I would really like to become a better tennis player' really has nothing to do with winning."
From being curious and exploring her tennis life without expectations, Wozniacki became a sort of administrator of her own success. One knows this from authors who, after a commercial breakthrough, experience 'being a name' and subsequently sell millions of books on their name alone, but also experience a loss of freedom, because more of the same is expected.
Wozniacki fought to keep her number one ranking, fought to repeat her final at the US Open. The world was no longer new and her career was filled with worries. There was much at stake. Losing was expensive, literally. Time after time the question was asked: "When will she win a Grand Slam?"
How could she be the best in the world if she couldn't win the biggest tennis tournaments in the world? Wozniacki went deep – quarter-finals, semi-finals – but every time she ended up facing a player who wasn't intimidated by her, who wasn't afraid of hitting the ball, who wasn't afraid of losing. And when the match approached the moment of truth, when the bottom line was either hit or parry, act or react, gamble or wait, Wozniacki stayed securely behind the baseline and let her opponent decide the result.
At the Australian Open semi-final in 2011 she had match point against Li Na. Wozniacki hoped while the Chinese player acted, hammered a brave forehand down the line, fended off match point and won the match. The year after, in the quarter-final against Kim Clijsters, there was another illustrative rally. It was in the second set, the match was seesawing, the Belgian was under pressure and hit a high, soft shot that bounced in the middle of Wozniacki's half of the court. She had the initiative. Now she had to hit it, move forward, create, angle, win. Wozniacki sent a rally shot up the middle of the court, a nervous forehand seemingly motivated by fear of making an error. And, as she stood there at the net like canon fodder for the thunder of a passing shot that had to come – and did – one thought, with a mixture of despondency and pity: "What do you want, Wozniacki, what do you want with your shots?"
With the loss, Wozniacki fell out of first place in the rankings. It would be the beginning of a long downfall.
Act Three: Crisis and developmentWe've now reached the point in the story where the hero appears to have lost everything, like the racing car Lightning McQueen, that, on its way to a big and important race, is stranded in a hamlet, forced to repair a hole in the road. Or where Parsifal rides discouraged around in the woods, a highly ranked knight, but deeply depressed over having failed when the Holy Grail was withing reach.
Wozniacki had lost her footing on the tennis court. Her opponents had eventually sussed out the Dane's game. For years, all her matches had been played on the big courts, on TV, and her game hadn't developed very much. She started to lose, not just to her nearest competitors, but to secondary players like Vögele, Pervak, Qiang Wang and Begu. a Romanian, who, as a player ranked 96 should have been easy pickings for Wozniacki when they met in the Fall of 2012 in the first round of the US Open.
The Dane lost 2-6 2-6 after a match where she walked around the court with slumped shoulders, framed the ball, sendt routine backhands outside the lines and lost 12 of the last 13 points in the match. It was her career's poorest performance in a Grand Slam.
At this point in time, Wozniacki was beginning to experiment with new coaches. Each attempt to replace Piotr was shorter than the other. Ricardo Sanchez, Thomas Högstedt, Michael Mortensen, David Kotyza came in and out of the revolving door. The Swede Thomas Johansson coached her up to the US Open loss to Begu. He had this to say on the way back from Louis Armstrong Stadium:
"Caroline is a fantastic player, but she has to start believing in what we're working on. I'd gladly have taken a 2-6 2-6 loss if I'd seen her try and do what we're practising, but she pulls back. She stands three metres behind the baseline and just runs around. That won't work."
Wozniacki herself was taciturn when she met the press after the match. Begu had played a good match, she thought, but it wasn't an excuse.
"It was mostly about myself," said Wozniacki.
She said that she was happy working with Thomas Johansson, and that she was in relatively good form.
"I just need to ..." Her eyes were wet, the expression far away.
"I need to figure out what it is I want."
Wozniacki fumbled around confused. She changed her foot positioning on her serve. She tried to come to the net without really knowing when to do it. She ran a marathon. She dug out her old Babolat racquet, painted it black and played with at tat the 2013 Wimbledon. A disappointed, to put it mildly, Yonex leadership dropped their collaboration with her, and even with her old racquet she went out of Wimbledon in the second round. She went from making the round of 16 or better in 10 out of 11 Grand Slams tournaments to only doing it four times out 17 attempts.
Off the court, Wozniacki was dumped under intense media attention, after a three-year long relationship, by the golf star Rory McIlroy shortly after the wedding invitations had been sent out.
At the same time, her body began to fail. One injury came after the other: right shoulder, left wrist, the back, and especially the ankle, which she twisted so badly on an April day in 2016 that she had to withdraw from all of the Spring clay tournaments, including the French Open. When Summer neared its end, the Dane was down to 74 in the rankings and any thoughts of when she'd win a Grand Slam tournament had long been silenced.
Wozniacki's time was over, people said. They were wrong.
Act Four: RedemptionThis is where the moral comes in. This is where we learn, like Lightning McQueen, that the most important isn't coming first over the finish line. This is where we learn, together with Parsifal, that the Holy Grail is within us. This is where we learn, together with Saint Exupéry's Little Prince, to appreciate the near relationships and the trivial wonders of everyday life, learn to rediscover the child's naive, open look. This is where Caroline Wozniacki discovers what is really meaningful.
Yes, we've seen the pictures of her as a little girl with braces on her teeth saying how, one day, she'd win the four Grand Slam tournaments. Yes, she'd be considered as one of the best tennis players ever never to win a Grand Slam. But, honestly, so what?
Wozniacki wrote a letter to her younger self, which was published up to the US Open in 2016. It's her attempt to try and convey some life wisdom, because she's learned a lot during her career.
"Well I’m here to tell you to breathe, young Caroline.
And she's there to remind her about what she thinks is so great about playing tennis to begin with: the match, the competition, the duel.
"Work hard. Find what you love and then be the very best you can be at it."
At this point, Wozniacki had experienced what it was like to be put on the sidelines away from the game, injured for months, long enough to come into contact with the realisation that one day it's over. It's telling that when you hear tennis stars like Rafael Nadal and Andy Murray talk about what they've missed from their injury periods, it's not the winds. They don't miss first and foremost winning big trophies. They miss the competition.
Tennis is really difficult. Being good at something very difficult is so satisfying, whether it's writing, carving, planting, caring or hitting a tennis ball. It is an enormous privilege to be allowed to get up every day and work at your craft, to make an effort, to do your best. It's a privilege one often first appreciates when one loses it. If one is lucky, the loss is only temporary.
Caroline Wozniacki was injury-free again when she wrote that letter. She was thankful in a way she hadn't experienced before about being able to play tennis. She had nothing to prove, even when she fell behind 0-4 at the US Open in the second round against the double Grand Slam winner Svetlana Kuznetsova. With her nose to the grindstone, Wozniacki won 6 games in a row and the match in two sets, and, for the first time in years, reached a semi-final.
It was to be the beginning of a year-and-a-half of the best tennis she'd ever played. Not because Wozniacki won one title after the other. She lost the first six she reached in 2017, lost without winning a set. It didn't matter; Wozniacki was doing the right things. Training and hard graft were no longer the means to goals of trophies and prize money. The daily work was the goal in itself. Of course she played to win – that's the premise for stepping out onto the court, but the results were secondary. Wins were byproducts of fulfilling the daily duties.
"If I work hard, then my time will come," we've heard her say again and again.
Now it was as if she knew that time coming wouldn't be in the form of a big triumph. Time is right here and right now. Feel it, enjoy it, it's gone in a short while. Wozniacki didn't have anything to prove any longer. She didn't have to achieve something. Which meant that she reached farther then ever before.
Firstly at the season-ending WTA Finals in Singapore, where she beat four of the world's five best players, including Venus Williams in the final – the American legend whom Wozniacki hadn't beaten is seven matches. She didn't win because was calm. She won because she was brave. She had a purpose with her shots. She dared.
The experiments during those fumbling years –however hopeless they'd seemed – finally paid off. Development isn't a beauty contest. Just like the Karate Kid had painted fences and waxed cars – wax on, wax off – Wozniacki started serving more aces than ever before, hit her forehand hard and flat down the line, stayed at the baseline and dictated.
Now she's won a Grand Slam title. The nice part about the Australian Open win isn't that she suddenly became another tennis player. She was still herself, with her tendency to become afraid when everything needs to be decided. In the semi-final against Elise Mertens, Wozniacki was ahead one set and 5-4 on own serve, to points away from the win. Then she got nervous, played passively, served double faults, first one, then the other. Mertens broke back and five minutes later, the Belgian had two set points.
It was like the loss to Li Na in 2011 over again. Except that Wozniacki, this time, hit back, first with a serve wide followed up by a controlled backhand winner on the other side. Then a forehand out of nowhere, hit fearlessly into the corner.
The final against Simona Halep was a drama that deserves its own tale. After almost three hours in what approached tropical heat, Wozniacki could throw her catcher into the air, throw herself on her back and celebrate her biggest triumph ever. The tears trickled down her cheeks.
Wozniacki spent the rest of the evening and a large part of Sunday hugging The Daphne Ackhurst trophy and going from one TV studio to the other, doing photo sessions and press conferences. Over and over she said how happy she was never having to hear about being world number one without a Grand Slam title. But she knew the journalists wouldn't leave her alone.
"Now I'm just waiting for the questions: When will you win another Grand Slam?"
It doesn't appear that Wozniacki is particularly worried about it. She know she'll be working and fighting and playing many more wonderful, dramatic tennis matches that bring tears to spectators' eyes all over the world like last Saturday. Maybe she'll win more big titles. Maybe she won't. It doesn't matter so much.