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Beyond the Baseline

The Toss: Caroline Wozniacki and trends of recent WTA No. 1s

Caroline Wozniacki Caroline Wozniacki won her first title of the season at the Korea Open, then scored a top-10 win over Li Na. (Getty Images)

Last week on The Toss, we handicapped the ATP Player of the Year race. The topic caused a heap of debate in the comments section, but the poll showed a clear favorite in Roger Federer.

This week, we travel across the aisle and test out a new Toss format with a panel of experts.

Today's Toss: We've seen a wide variety of WTA No. 1s, from dominance to mediocrity to retirements. Now back in the winner's circle, which path is Caroline Wozniacki most likely to take?

Courtney Nguyen: They say that the most effective servers are the ones who can hit a variety of serves off the same toss. That's what we're going to try to do here today. Instead of engaging in The Toss' traditional A vs. B debate format, I thought it would be fun to gather some of my favorite writers to discuss the Continually Curious Case of Caroline Wozniacki.

It was only nine months ago that Wozniacki was kicking off her second straight year ranked at No. 1, coming off back-to-back seasons as the winningest player on the WTA Tour and winning six titles in both 2010 and 2011. For two years, Caroline won. She won a lot. The "problem" -- and I use that term very loosely -- was that she didn't win the right tournaments. While the Dane's defensive style and competitive fire was effective at the WTA's lesser events, she couldn't break through at the Slams, thus earning her membership in the exclusive treehouse occupied by Slam-less No. 1s.

Since the beginning of the season, Wozniacki has dropped outside the top 10 and finally won her first title last weekend at an International-level tournament in Seoul. It was a confidence-boosting week for Wozniacki that ended a 13-month title drought. Granted, she had to beat only one top-20 player -- she defeated Kaia Kanepi in the final in what was Kanepi's first tournament back from injury since the French Open -- but the win has paid immediate dividends. This week in Tokyo she scored her first top 10 win of the year over Li Na -- this from a woman who was 8-4 against the top 10 in 2011 -- in an ugly three-set grinder.

So here's my opening question: Of the most recent former No. 1s, such as Ana Ivanovic, Jelena Jankovic and even players like Serena Williams and Maria Sharapova, whose career trajectory is Woz most likely to follow?

Ana Ivanovic Ana Ivanovic won the French Open and reached No. 1 in 2008. She struggled to back that up, falling outside the top 50 in '10, but has since climbed back to No. 12. (Getty Images)

Romi Cvitkovic, Managing Editor, Tennis Grandstand, World Tennis Magazine: With her drop in form this past year, I can easily see Wozniacki going the way of Ivanovic: clinging to the rankings in the 11-20 range after some stellar results in 2010 and 2011, but never fully committing in 2012. While Ivanovic struggled with self-doubt on her way out of the top spot, Wozniacki has an altogether different distraction. As much as she doesn’t want to admit it, being in a relationship with golfer Rory McIlroy has affected her focus, and tennis has been left playing the third wheel.

But don’t get me wrong. The hardworking Dane seems more content now than she had been at the top of the rankings, and perhaps it’s a good thing for her maturity. But if she doesn’t turn her elevated off-court energy soon into a winning game on-court, we can easily see her hovering around the 20th ranking through much of next year.

Brodie Elgin, Blogger, Mind the Racket: I agree with Romi. Wozniacki found tons of success almost by accident. In a transitional period of the game, big names like Serena, Kim Clijsters and Sharapova all struggled with injuries and post-injury issues. Wozniacki was hardly the most impressive, overwhelming player, but she was the most consistent.

At the same time, she is a likable character, much like Ivanovic, and shot to success and the No. 1 rank relatively quickly. While the pressure of the ranking may not have destroyed her mentally as much as it did Ivanovic, the outside distractions, traveling, amount of matches and change of lifestyle have likely taken their toll for the young Dane.

Ben Rothenberg, Blogger, New York Times: Far from being a negative, I actually think Rory is a big part of the reason Caroline has been able to stay within reach for a lot of 2012. He's a really positive guy and a positive influence in her life. His spirit and success have to be contagious to some extent.  Anyone who has witnessed a Piotr Wozniacki on-court coaching timeout or even just a face-palm in the stands knows he's hardly a sunshine-y guy when it comes to his daughter's tennis, and I think the good feelings of Wozzilroy really have kept Wozniacki from being in a far darker place than she might otherwise be.

Unlike all those other No. 1s mentioned, tennis experts and pretty much everyone around the sport had always whispered audibly about the flaws in Caroline's game long before she left the No. 1 spot. I think it's fair to say she's something of an overachiever already in her career given her playing style, which is a testament to her chronically underrated tenacity.

Jelena Jankovic After finishing 2008 at No. 1, Jelena Jankovic has had somewhat erratic results and bounced around the top 20. She has made one Slam final. (Getty Images)

As far as other No. 1s to compare her to, I'm going to land on Jankovic for right now. Wozniacki's game is so unpredictable right now. She's going to have some big results and big losses out of nowhere, and will likely ping-pong up and down the top 20 for the next several years. Remember, more than a year after she lost the No. 1 ranking in early 2009, Jankovic climbed back up as high as No. 2 in mid-2010. She had some big results out of nowhere (titles in Indian Wells and Cincinnati), and I think that's the sort of path Caroline will take.

Courtney mentioned the Treehouse of the Slam-less 1s. Is Woz the best member? Maybe, based on résumé alone. But I think peak-Jankovic beats peak-Wozniacki, and that's one way to measure it.

But it's worth remembering how young she still is. At 22, Wozniacki is the youngest player in the top 20. And with how long WTA careers are getting lately, this is still a pretty early chapter in her story, hopefully.

CVITKOVIC: Ben, you have a fair point in calling Wozniacki an overachiever given her age and that she already has 19 titles. But can we really give her that much credit when she has yet to win her first Slam – something that Maria, Serena and Ana had already achieved by her age? It’s a critical stage in her career and if she does not step up now, her focus and mental game may never catch up in the years to come.

ROTHENBERG: I don't think I buy that Caroline's window of opportunity is somehow closing just because other players peaked earlier. And I also don't buy into the notion, completely, that Slams are the only ticket to greatness. Compare Wozniacki's career singles record to someone like Sam Stosur (who has never been inside the top three and has only won three career titles) and I think there are a lot of positives in the way Caroline's career has gone, in terms of her résumé. She's spent more weeks at No. 1 than Sharapova, Clijsters, Ivanovic and Venus combined. And when you see how much regaining No. 1 meant to someone like Roger Federer, it's hard to discount the importance of the top ranking to tennis players.

As long as she stays healthy, I think there's plenty of time for her to peak, the way Stosur, Li and even Serena did. After all, it took Serena a few years after her initial Slam win to back it up with a second, and there might be a similar nascent period between Caroline's run at No. 1 and her later successes.

And if it turns out that she already has peaked, she's really not a failure by any fair stretch whatsoever.

NGUYEN: It is easy to forget that Caro's still, in tennis terms, a baby. I'm with Ben on the Jankovic comparison. While I'm not entirely convinced that she's going to rise from the ashes in a Sharapova- or Serena-like way, I do think she's going to be a mainstay in the top 10, if not the top five over the next few years. Yes, her game is flawed. Her forehand breaks down, and she needs to check all that moonballing business at the door. But she's unrivaled when it comes to being a competitor. I mean, having a nickname like "Sunshine" doesn't exactly strike fear in the hearts of your opponents. It's the goofy Reebok visor to her Andy Roddick. But it's her trump card. I mean, how many WTAers these days have tremendous talent but don't have the head to match?

My main question is whether Caroline has the guts to really address her weaknesses and allow her game to evolve. Given the WTA's history, I could see her reticence in wanting to tinker. Jankovic, also a counterpuncher, tried to beef up her game and it was a complete disaster. At least according to her, which ... I'm not entirely convinced she's a reliable narrator.

ELGIN: Interesting stuff. I agree with a bit of what everyone is saying. By no means is Caro's career over, and the success she's had will teach her valuable lessons for later on in her career. It would not be surprising to see her win a major title at some point.

But with players like Victoria Azarenka, Petra Kvitova, et al finding success and consistency, it is difficult to see Wozniacki at the top of the ranking mountain once again. You always have to like the power players against her.

While I agree with Courtney that Woz would need to make changes to become more effective and potentially win that first major, I find it highly unlikely. Her ability to stay closed and go down the line with force is nearly nonexistent. It's not only a tactical choice but also a swing and footwork choice. It is not impossible for her to work on this part of her game, but it is nearly impossible to see her changing her style of play and developing a shot like that Jankovic down-the-line backhand, for example, so late in her development. While Jankovic is a counterpuncher in that she can absorb pace and find holes to hit winners, Caro is nearly a 100 percent defensive player with very little pace. If Woz is going to win a major, she's going to need a good ranking and a bit of luck.

NGUYEN: Admittedly, the comparisons of Woz to JJ have always bothered me for just that reason. JJ's backhand down the line was actually a weapon. Moonballs don't count as weapons.

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CVITKOVIC: I tend to agree with Brodie. While Wozniacki has shown glimmers of some aggression in her shot selection over the last few months, it seems to end there – only a glimmer. It hasn’t evolved into anything concrete and she tends to revert right back to her junkballing ways when she gets tight. It seems unlikely for a player of her style to win a Slam, but hey, Andy Murray did it playing nearly the same way against a foe struggling to keep up in the last U.S. Open, so why not her?

Likewise, Wozniacki may have all the weapons she cares to utilize. But if the WTA game continues to increase in power much the same as the men’s, it could spell trouble for her soft game. And what happens when her defensive and scrambling ways start wreaking havoc on her joints, causing injuries? So far she has somehow stayed mostly out of trouble, but it could catch up with her sometime.

Will she end up like Dinara Safina – a talented player plagued with injuries and forced out of her career way too young? I cringe at the thought.

ROTHENBERG: The thing is, I've seen Wozniacki play more aggressively and succeed. She looked great in a loss to Kvitova in Hopman Cup this year playing that way, and then she forced the issue against Serena in Miami for what is the biggest win she's had in a long time, or, arguably, ever.

She has to figure out, though, if she really wants to commit to that style or if she's content to live and die with safe play. Because as long as she keeps winning matches like that stinker against Li in Tokyo by not going for much, I think it will be tough to really convince her that she needs to change for good.

But I still think that a Slam is not a complete impossibility with that kind of play. You never know when she could wind up against someone like a Sara Errani in a final.

ELGIN: As an aside, I think Caroline will bounce back next year. She has played so much tennis and seen so much of the spotlight that its hard not to expect a dip in form, particularly the way she plays. I agree with what Ben said earlier that having Rory around is likely more positive than it is negative. Wozniacki is still young and will have lots of energy to go after it next year, particularly after the success of Azarenka and Aga Radwanska. I think she will enjoy lurking in the weeds, waiting for a chance to break through again, style change or no.

CVITKOVIC: Going back to the Rory subject, I see, Brodie. Well, how about this: While Serena picked up a supposed boyfriend then reeled off titles at Wimbledon, the Olympics and the U.S. Open, and Maria channeled her broken engagement to Sasha Vujacic to win Stuttgart, Rome and her first Roland Garros this spring, Wozniacki instead decided to go against the “former No. 1 trend” and … slump? It just doesn’t make sense. If you’re a born-and-bred competitor like Wozniacki is, where has the fire suddenly gone?

ROTHENBERG: My last thought on this: Fire of any kind needs Oxygen.

You decide: Vote in the poll and sound off in the comments with your thoughts on Wozniacki's career path. While you're there, let us know what you think of the new format!

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