French Open 2019: Caroline Wozniacki’s early exit questions the effectiveness of her ‘grinding’ style of play
Wozniacki has been struggling with a calf injury all through the clay season, and before that she was struck by a viral illness that slowed her down.
Wozniacki wasn’t really doing a lot with the ball, and just seemed to be waiting for errors from Kudermetova – which Kudermetova seemed eager to provide
Wozniacki seemed to be at the mercy of Kudermetova, which would’ve been particularly galling for her fans since Kudermetova is not a powerful hitter
Wozniacki has been more injury-prone than most of her peers throughout her career
“I just have to try to stay positive. Obviously, it’s not as easy to stay positive when things aren’t going your way, but I think that’s when you really need to just keep grinding.”
Caroline Wozniacki’s sobering self-assessment after her first-round loss to Veronika Kudermetova wasn’t very different from the usual PR-speak of tennis players. But one word did catch your attention: ‘grinding’.
For much of Wozniacki’s career, that word has been widely and uncontestably been used to describe her style of play. The style worked well for a long time too; Wozniacki is a former Grand Slam champion and World No 1, and was firmly entrenched in the top echelon of women’s tennis for over a decade.
But is a decade too long to continue with a defensive game?
Against Kudermetova on Monday, Wozniacki cruised through the first set and looked in total command of the match. She was too quick and consistent, and nobody suspected it would be anything other than a routine win for the Dane.
But even when she was dominating, it looked a little too good to be true. Wozniacki wasn’t really doing a lot with the ball, and just seemed to be waiting for errors from Kudermetova – which Kudermetova seemed eager to provide. What would happen when the errors stopped coming?
We didn’t have to wait too long to find out. At the start of the second set, Kudermetova held serve to get on the board for the first time in the match, and that gave her a jolt of confidence. She proceeded to go on the attack against the Wozniacki serve in the very next game, and soon had a breakpoint.
The break was obtained through a lucky net-chord after which the complexion of the match changed completely. And while it may be tempting to delve into what might have happened had luck been on Wozniacki’s side, it’s more instructive to look at how the two women reacted to that turn of events.
The Dane went into her shell, as though she believed being passive would magically turn Kudermetova into an error machine again. And the Russian, having been fed rally balls into her wheelhouse since the start of the match, got into a real rhythm and never looked back.
For the rest of the match, Wozniacki seemed to be at the mercy of Kudermetova, which would’ve been particularly galling for her fans since Kudermetova is not the most powerful of hitters. The Russian just looked to take more risks than her opponent and aim closer to the lines, and that resulted in 40 winners for her – to just 15 for Wozniacki.
The only time over the last two sets that the Dane looked to attack with her down-the-line backhand or step into the court to hit swing volley winners, was when she went down a double break in the second. But it was too little too late; the momentum had shifted irrevocably in Kudermetova’s favor.
It didn’t help that Wozniacki promptly returned to her counterpunching self the moment she got one of the breaks back. And by the end of the match, she was not only getting outhit but also making routine errors, in the process accelerating her exit from Roland Garros.
This is not an entirely disastrous result for Wozniacki, considering clay is not quite her surface of choice. The Dane has never reached the semi-finals at Roland Garros, and only four of her 30 titles have come on dirt (with none of them being Premier Mandatory or Premier 5 level). Still, this is her fifth straight Slam loss before the quarterfinal; for a top 10 quality player like her, that’s a worrying trend.
Wozniacki is just a year and a half removed from her breakthrough Grand Slam win at the Australian Open, but it feels much longer than that. While this loss is not a disaster, it is one more in a series of setbacks dating back to the start of 2019 – Wozniacki is just 9-8 on the year and has reached the only quarter-final (at Charleston) so far.
It is worth noting here that her last two losses before Paris came via retirement. Wozniacki has been struggling with a calf injury all through the clay season, and before that she was struck by a viral illness that slowed her down.
“Right now, there’s not much I can do about the first six months of the season. I had some good weeks where I felt great, and then I’ve had some weeks where I’ve been sick and some weeks where I’ve been injured,” she said after the match.
The injuries do put her losses into perspective. But they also beg the question of how much longer Wozniacki can continue playing her tried-and-tested brand of tennis without demanding too high a price from her body.
Wozniacki is 28 now – which is not too old in tennis terms, but not exactly young either when you take into account the fact that she’s been at it longer than most 28-year-olds. Wozniacki reached the No 1 ranking almost a decade ago. Naturally, she’s had her fair share of wear and tear ever since.
Some would even say she’s had more than her fair share.
Wozniacki has been more injury-prone than most of her peers throughout her career. She’s had shoulder problems, thigh injuries, ankle niggles; you name an injury, and she’s probably had it. The last few years, in particular, have seen her go in and out of the hospital at an alarming rate, which is why rumors of her retirement have been doing the rounds for about half a decade now.
If Wozniacki is going to keep relying on her opponent’s errors to win her matches, you can’t help but fear for her long-term career. When she was young she could use her speed and athleticism to outlast practically all of her opponents without taking too many risks. Now, however, she can only do that for so long before the protests from her body get too loud.
There have been times in Wozniacki’s career when she has been proactive with her play, using her deadly backhand to open up the court and finish points efficiently. Her run at the 2017 WTA Finals comes to mind immediately; in that tournament, she didn’t play anything like a grinder. She served big and won a bunch of free points with it, while off the ground she nearly matched the power of players like Venus Williams and Karolina Pliskova.
What would it take for her to return to that playing style, and in the process prolong her career?
A few more early losses at the Slams might do the trick. The hope is that she responds to future setbacks by deciding to be bold and efficient with her play – while restricting the ‘grinding’ to just the practice sessions.
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