Blown opportunity at French puts Wozniacki's shortcomings in focus

Publish date:

It might be best for Caroline Wozniacki if she doesn't even look at what's left of the French Open women's draw. It will only make her more depressed.

On a day when Samantha Stosur became the latest elite player to depart -- in Wozniacki's quarter, no less -- the world's No. 1-ranked player tossed out a real stinker Friday in her 6-1, 6-3 loss to Daniela Hantuchova. If you were seeing each player for the first time, you'd easily peg Hantuchova as the more accomplished, forthright player. That's hardly the reality of the situation, and that's why Wozniacki will need a bit of soul-searching in the weeks leading up to Wimbledon.

Truth be told, the 28-year-old Hantuchova is a marvel. She doesn't have much beyond Indian Wells (two career titles) on her resume, and her only Grand Slam semifinal came at the 2008 Australian Open, but even now, she has the lithe, fresh-on-the-scene look of a teenager. Her problem has been nerves, and top players invariably find a way to throw her off. Wozniacki wasn't able to do that, not once appearing that she'd reversed the tide of momentum.

Facing a player to whom she had never lost (6-0 going in), Wozniacki didn't hit a single winner in the first set. When things got difficult -- and this goes for most players on the grim landscape of baseline monotony -- she didn't have a strategic Plan B at her disposal. It was almost sad to see her suddenly rush the net behind a backhand in the final game, Hantuchova responding with a searing backhand pass.

It's clear to everyone that Wozniacki falls badly short of the traditional No. 1 standard, but this tournament really put her shortcomings in focus. Considering all the missing elements -- the Williams sisters, Justine Henin, Kim Clijsters, and now Stosur (a finalist last year), Wozniacki had a real shot at winning her first major.

Who wins it now? "I have no idea," Pam Shriver said on ESPN. "I picked (Maria) Sharapova, so I guess I'll stick with that."

Not that there's anything wrong with a wide-open major. We're far removed from the days when everyone waited for Martina Navratilova to face Chris Evert in a final. Heading into Saturday's play, the French has potential champions in Sharapova, Francesca Schiavone, Petra Kvitova, Victoria Azarenka, Andrea Petkovic, Agnieszka Radwanska, Vera Zvonareva and Jelena Jankovic. And wait, hold on, there's also Marion Bartoli, Li Na and Yanina Wickmayer. At this rate, the woman holding the trophy on Sunday will be none of those people.

With any luck, some fans will actually show up as the matches become more important. If you attend a match at Wimbledon -- any match, any day, any conditions -- the stands will be packed with fans savoring every single moment. Stosur took a 6-1, 1-6, 6-3 loss to Giselka Dulko in front of about 18 people (only a slight exaggeration), and there were many hundreds of empty seats for the Wozniacki match. This has been the case throughout the tournament, particularly for the morning matches, and it's an ongoing disgrace.

* * * * *

It must be a maddening experience for U.S. tennis officials to witness the little miracles of this year's tournament. The European prospects just keep coming, almost literally out of nowhere, with style and substance and the hint of great things to come.

Clijsters was within two match points of a breezy, non-eventful victory over the Netherlands' 114th-ranked Arantxa Rus, only to get blown off the court in one of the tournament's most stunning upsets of recent years. When Caroline Garcia took a 6-3, 4-1 lead over Maria Sharapova, seasoned insiders were enraptured by the French teenager's panache, elegant athleticism and wicked groundstrokes.

There was a glaring contrast in belief. After a while, Rus realized that she could stay on the court with Clijsters, that the Belgian great seemed oddly detached, and Rus' forehands suddenly gained pace and authority. Garcia, playing before a home crowd, couldn't sustain the moment. She admitted later being aware of Sharapova's commanding presence, and give Maria credit for a vintage display of confidence and resolve.

Still, Garcia's glowing images were there to stay. Andy Murray tweeted that the beguiling 17-year-old (Spanish father, French mother) would one day be No. 1 in the world, and "U heard it hear first," to which Navratilova responded on Tennis Channel, "He's not the first to say that. This girl has the goods. It she stays healthy, she's here to stay."

Rus, similar to Garcia in that she summons massive power from a rail-thin frame, won the 2008 Australian Open junior title and now, at the age of 20, looks ready to become a fixture on tour. If nothing else, she'll be remembered as the foil in one of Clijsters' most baffling performances.

Throughout her career, Clijsters has been known to "go away" during a match, and she packed all of her bags this time. Leading by a set and 5-2, she let a match point slip away, then another at 5-4, and before long, she was hurrying her way to defeat (65 unforced errors) and not looking particularly upset about it.

Navratilova, Mary Carillo and Justin Gimelstob admitted being eternally baffled by Clijsters' tendency to drift, although it's a bit more explainable these days. Motherhood is Clijsters' priority. She was coming off a long layoff and hadn't played the French in five years.

* * * * *

Assorted quotes from here and there:

Navratilova, once it was learned that Sabine Lisicki -- carried off the court after losing to Zvonareva -- had suffered only from cramps: "She tends to go for the drama. This one was a bit overcooked. I'm sure she was not feeling well, but I think she could have walked off on her own volition. I'm glad she's OK, but she needs to get it together."

ESPN's Chris McKendry, on Azarenka's run: "She's the noisiest player we've ever heard, so to say she's 'quietly' sneaking through the draw would be absolutely crazy."

Mary Joe Fernandez (ESPN), before the tournament began: "To me, Wozniacki is still struggling with that balance of being more aggressive. She's at the top of the game because of her consistency, but if she's going to push and win a major, she has to find a little bit more. Watching her at the Australian Open, when she had a match point [and couldn't put it away], when you get to that level, you can't wait for your opponent to miss. You have to make it happen."

Bethanie-Mattek-Sands, on her unusual fashion statements: "You see two girls, blonde hair, wearing the exact same thing head to toe. If I can't tell them apart, no way a fan's going to tell them apart. It just brings, you know, something unique to the game."

Navratilova on Kuznetsova: "She likes being a big cheese in Russia, I think. She moved from Barcelona to Moscow because she's a big fish there. She likes the recognition that she gets, and I think she got a little lazy, in a way, living the good life."

Roger Federer, on his chances: "I don't have a Grand Slam in my pocket (this year), but if I win one, it changes everything."