Tennis is fierce. It’s hard to become an elite star and, on top of that, a beloved figure in the locker room. Not all that many achieved that double. Kim Clijsters, Evonne Goolagong, Chris Evert, Stefan Edberg, Pat Rafter, Amelie Mauresmo, the Bryans, Guga Kuerten, Del Potro, Lindsay Davenport, Roger and Rafa all come to mind.
So does Caroline Wozniacki. She twice was No. 1. She won the Aussie Open, the WTA Championships, over 34 million dollars and many hearts.
Her shots were not the best. Her weapons were speed, a nasty backhand, craftiness and, more than anything, a world-class fighting spirit. Plus, she was tough and feisty. She got up Christmas morning and practiced for two hours.
But off court, there were always smiles, adventures and a love of sport.
She came from a tiny country. And when it comes to tennis, there have been few great Danes with big bites. But Caro always had a dogged determination.
As an aspiring prospect she was backed by Denmark’s Prince Frederik. But as a kid her behavior wasn’t always royal. She was defaulted in the first round of the 2006 Junior US Open for abusive behavior.
At heart, Caro was a competitor – a jock who loved all sports. Her dad was a Polish soccer player and she used boxing as a training tool. After she ran the New York Marathon she admitted she hit the wall. Then she added that it didn’t bother her that over the years scores of her frustrated foes likened her to a wall.
Sadly she was left at the altar by golfer Rory McIroy, who ended their engagement after the wedding invitations had gone out. Some made light of the high-profile break-up. After Caro’s hair got caught in her racket at the US Open, ESPN said, “She got Rory out of her hair, now she needs to get her racket out of her hair.” But it was devastating for Wozniacki, who confided, “When it comes out of the blue, that’s like a shock. It’s like someone dies right in front of you.”
Yesterday, when yet another Wozniacki forehand flew long, she didn’t die; it was just the end of a magical career. Her father lifted her high to the Aussie sky. She kissed her husband, former NBA All-Star David Lee. And her brother wept.
Few players have an anthem that suits them well. The Laver Arena speakers rang out with “Sweet Caroline:”
Hands, touching hands,
Reaching out, touching me, touching you
Good times never seemed so good.
Now everyone, from Federer to Serena, seemed to be saying the WTA would never be so good. Chris Evert noted, “Caroline had the fight, the heart, the consistency. Like Serena, she found a way to win.”
Twice she finished as the year-end No. 1 player of the year, without winning a Slam. She was long said to be the best player to never win a Slam – but that ended with her 2018 Aussie Open win. Since then she has been diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis.
Woz’s nickname is Sunshine. But, off-court and on, she is one tough cookie. When photographers were stalking her, she tweeted: “To the paparazzi outside the hotel: I can see you and your camera even when you wear camouflage clothes and a fake baby on your chest lol.”
When the red carpet was laid out for Maria Sharapova when she came back after her suspension, Wozniacki commented, “Someone who comes back from a drug sentence and all of a sudden gets to play every single match on Center Court, that’s a questionable thing.”
One thing Melbourne saw yesterday was Caro’s fight against Tunisian Ons Jabeur. But, despite two fierce comebacks, she fell short for a final time. Then she quipped to the crowd, saying wouldn’t you know it? I went out on a forehand error.
As she came into the interview room, hardened reporters applauded. She said, “I was told there are tissues here…I think I’m cried out.” Wrong. Woz’s eyes quickly teared up. She confided, “There are a lot of emotions… a lot of excitement. A little sadness. Just flashbacks from when I was a kid to this moment. The fact is that it’s gone so quick but at the same time it feels like I’ve been out here a long time…Players congratulate me. Feeling the love from everyone has been very special.
”Even when I’m down a lot, I’ve always believed I can come back and win…There were a couple of times [today] where I was like, ‘Shoot, this could be my last one.’ It was just like, ‘I don’t want it to be the last one.’…I fought like my life depended on it…Throughout my career, that’s what I’ve been known for.. It’s exciting. It’s terrifying. It’s a lot of emotions. But I’m very happy. Even though I was crying a lot, it really wasn’t sad tears – I think just happy tears.”
Caro went on, saying, “I’ve learned so much. I wouldn’t be the person I am today without all those experiences. The main thing I’ve learned is no matter where you’re from, no matter what color your skin, no matter if you’re tall or short, big or small, it doesn’t matter. If you have a dream and you go for it and work hard, anything is possible. I had a dream. I wanted to win a Grand Slam. I wanted to be No. 1 in the world. People thought that I was crazy, being from a small country. But I made it happen. I worked so hard every single day. I’m very, very proud of that.”
She said sticking with her Dad as her coach was the best decision of her life. There’s so much trust there. She added, “What happened today was perfect. It was a packed stadium. People stood up. There was ‘Sweet Caroline’ through the microphones. I had the Danish flag. I had my family there…I don’t think I could have scripted it any better. It was the perfect moment.
“I’m not a big crier, but I saw my dad pacing – that’s what he does when he tries not to get emotional. Then my mom was bawling. My brother was shaking. That caught me – I got emotional. Obviously looking at David just smiling, crying, being excited all at once. It was a moment I will never forget.
“I hope people will think of me as a hard worker, someone who gave it everything every single day. I hope that I’ll give inspiration to the players from small countries. I hope I left some happiness around the locker room. It’s a very tough environment, a hard environment…I hope that I gave some excitement and release and some happiness in the locker room with the chats and the fun talks we’ve had…
‘There’s so much to life. Tennis has been a huge part of my life. There are going to be new parts of my life that I’m going to be very excited about. There are going to be times when I wish I was out there playing in Grand Slam finals or semifinals. But you know what, there will be other moments in my life…I’m going to miss that competitiveness. Fighting from 1-5 down, coming back and winning, that adrenaline is going to be very hard to duplicate.”
And so will Caroline Wozniacki.