Tuesday May 27th, 2014

Caroline Wozniacki put up a fight, but couldn't overcome Yanina Wickmayer, losing 7-6 (5), 4-6, 6-2.
Matthew Stockman/Getty Images

PARIS -- High above Rockefeller Center in Midtown Manhattan, the Rainbow Room offers impeccable service and refined contemporary cuisine, reinforcing its standing as a quintessential New York venue. So says its website, anyway. If you'd like to rent the place out, thanks to a recent cancellation, there's availability on a Saturday night in November. That was when Caroline Wozniacki was supposed to marry professional golfer Rory McIlroy. Then he called it off. Perhaps you heard?

If you're looking for an X's and O's analysis of what went wrong, or a breakdown of the breakup, stop reading this column. You will be disappointed. We got nothing for you here. There was something unsettling about the snark and speculation. And there was a weird voyeurism that attended Wozniacki's first-round match at the French Open. A week ago, she was an outside contender, a former No. 1 whose game had stagnated. On Tuesday, her opener against Belgium's Yanina Wickmayer was a source of great curiosity. Would she -- hell having no fury and all -- take out her anger and disappointment on a fuzzy ball? Or would she succumb to emotion, tears puddling in the clay as she missed shot after shot?

Still, there are some aspects to this story worth discussing. For one, this served as another reminder that athletes are real people too, and sometimes "life happens" to them. Athletes jump higher and run faster than the rest of us. We idealize them and treat them as cartoon heroes and villains. But they, too, sometimes deal with matters like getting their hearts broken. This probably bears remembering next time we -- knowing nothing of the circumstances -- determine that an athlete sucks or chokes or is otherwise unfit for the job.

Li loses in first round; both Australian Open champs out

At the same time, this uncoupling offered some insight into athletes' abilities to compartmentalize, warding off distraction and going about their business. The most extreme (sociopathic?) example might be Aaron Hernandez allegedly playing an NFL season unburdened by his involvement in multiple deaths. But we see other, less malevolent, instances all the time. Players returning from relatives' death and recent parenthood and other "life status changes," without any noticeable effect on performance. Amid what even the staid wire services called "personal anguish," McIlroy won the BMW PGA Championship last weekend. Inasmuch as he was troubled by a scuttled engagement, it did not exact a price on his sporting pursuits.

Wozniacki, 23, was not as successful. In mid-afternoon, she lost 7-6 (5), 4-6, 6-2 on Suzanne Lenglen Court. Whether it was an inability to block out distraction or simply an ability to outhit her opponent, who knows? She didn't hit the cover off the ball; nor was she incapacitated by grief; nor was she struggling to see the ball through tears. She simply played too defensively at times (as his her wont), served unremarkably and felt the slight effects of a knee injury.

Afterward, she met her interrogators in the media room for the first time since the split. She began with a prepared statement that read in part: "I don't really want to talk about my personal life." Then, in a thoroughly civil and considerate back-and-forth, she did just that. She admitted that the breakup "came a bit as a shock." She talked of the support and inspiration she's gotten from tennis community. She clearly conveyed the impression that, yeah, the last week kind of sucked. But she did so with no tears, no quivering voice -- just an abundance of likability.

Wozniacki may never return to the No. 1 ranking. Maybe her game won't permit that. Maybe her body won't permit that. ("I guess I'm getting old," she said. "It's like a car that is 10 years old, all of sudden it starts breaking down.") But she won't be undone by having a wedding scuttled. And in many ways, Tuesday's performance, both on and off the court, is more impressive and more admirable than winning a stupid golf tournament.

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