Wozniacki may not realize it, but progress was made despite early exit

Wednesday June 27th, 2012

Caroline Wozniacki Caroline Wozniacki is trying to add more power to her game. (Landov)

WIMBLEDON, England -- Perspective is only as effective as the conviction behind it, and for Caroline Wozniacki, there's an understandable, if not unfortunate disconnect right now.

The former No. 1, who has fallen to seventh, played one of the best matches of her year on Wednesday in the first round of Wimbledon, a performance that would have been good enough to win against most players. But her opponent, Tamira Paszek, is going through one of those streaks of self-belief and quality play. The 21-year-old Austrian may not be a household name, but she's proved that she can play well -- extremely well, even -- in patches.

A quarterfinalist here last year, Paszek's game is perfectly suited for grass. She hits a big ball that sails through the court with tremendous pace. She is riding a high after winning last week's AEGON International in Eastbourne, where she upset top-10 players Marion Bartoli and Angelique Kerber. She's a fearless, bordering-on-reckless hitter. That's precisely why she's capable of hitting the back fence for matches on end (she had won only two matches in 2012 before Eastbourne), or beating some of the best players in the world on any given day.

Contrast that with Wozniacki and it's tempting to write the same old story after Paszek's 5-7, 7-6 (4), 6-4 victory. Wozniacki is too passive, lacks weapons and collapses into her defensive shell when the pressure mounts.

Yes, all this we know and we've known it for years. Wozniacki says she's putting in the hard work and the ball just isn't bouncing her way. She says she can't fault herself on the two match points she had against Paszek at 6-5 in the second set, and there's some truth to that. Paszek gripped and ripped and the ball went flying off her racket with tremendous pace only to land and kick up chalk. A few inches the other way and Wozniacki walks away with her winning streak in first-round matches of majors extended to 21, and the words we've all sat down to write now would be about her fighting spirit and noticeably more aggressive game under new coach Thomas Johansson. But the ball didn't bounce that way, and Paszek fought bravely to secure the victory.

Wozniacki, then, is forced to face the questions that have dogged her for more than two years now, the volume turned up as she has found herself in a significant slump.

"I had over two years where I was winning these matches," a red-eyed and world-weary Wozniacki said. "You know, even [when] I wasn't playing great sometimes but still winning and managed to pull it off. Luck was still on my side. You win one, two points, and suddenly you get through these matches and you're standing in a semifinal, a final, and anything can happen. I feel lately it's going the other way a little bit. It's not the first match this year where I have match points and not winning. It's frustrating, obviously. But it's tennis."

The Dane, however, made progress Wednesday, and this where the right perspective can save her. The reality is that Wozniacki played one of the best matches of her career on grass, but as she sees it, she won't have much to show for it.

"It was a good match, good tennis, but that doesn't really help me," she said. "I lost in the first round. Tomorrow no one will remember how great a match it was, they'll just remember who won. "

But that's where her perspective fails her. For so long Wozniacki was content to play a game that won her a lot of matches during the year (she was the winningest player in terms of matches and titles over the last two seasons) but never the ones that really mattered. But she's tried (how hard she's tried, we don't know) to implement some changes to her game to become more aggressive. There was the failed experiment with Ricardo Sanchez earlier this year (which could have worked out if she had given it time) and now she's brought in Johansson. But she has to stop and realize that the results aren't going to come immediately and these losses, as painful as they are, are less about the result and more about the performance. What I fear is that she's become so down on herself, so worried that a win here or a win there will kick-start her season and give her the validation -- short-term validation -- that she desperately craves. But it should be all about the long view for her. That's a tough pill to swallow for a competitor as ferocious as Wozniacki, but for inspiration she should look at Maria Sharapova, a player who's already proved that change takes time and you deal with the losses by keeping your eye on the prize.

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