Anders Haahr Rasmussens blog

Caroline Wozniacki is better

I wrote this after the 2009 US Open and it got published in Denmark in August 2010 and was set to come out in the US the year after but funding for the translation never came through. Chapter Two got done, though. Or a draft of it did. Here it is:

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Chapter Two

 

On a cold Thursday morning in November I played tennis with a friend. It took place just outside of Copenhagen in a tennis center owned by one of the city’s largest sports clubs, KB. The center was empty except for two other players, who had the court next to ours. They hit the ball really hard and seldom made an error. They looked good. The standard is pretty high here at KB, I thought to myself. I’d never been there before.

My friend and I got ready and started to play. Our tempo was uneven and our technique rusty. We hadn’t played in a while. Between rallies I snuck glances over at our neighbors. Their play made all the right sounds. Their strings gave off the deep plok that comes from striking the ball clean on. It echoed throughout the whole center. The standard is really high here at KB, I thought. Sure, I might once have been league champion at the local tennis club back home, but this was a different level entirely. Almost all of their shots were the kind I could hope to hit only once or twice in a match; the kind that requires perfect balance and timing and travels through your body like a feeling of having done something at once magnificent and at the same time incredibly simple.

One of them in particular, a woman in her early twenties, fascinated me. She wasn’t all that tall, at least a head shorter than the guy on the other side of the net, but she didn’t let that bother her. Her forehand was potent. She hit with a flick of her underarm and a Federer-style swing that moved horizontally like a wave in front of her body instead of slanting upwards past her shoulder. There was a fantastic freedom in her movements. In the end I simply couldn’t take my eyes off her. The delicate slice, the footwork, the little split steps between hits, the balance when she leaned into her double backhand, the volleys worthy of being on an instructional video. She was brilliant. I thought, high standards, right. I didn’t think I’d ever seen a better women’s tennis player on Danish soil.

It would turn out to be true. Hanne Skak Jensen is Denmark’s best women’s tennis player, after Caroline Wozniacki1. In Wozniacki’s absence she has won the national championship in 2006, 2007, 2008, and 2009. The 23-year-old Scandinavian-based player travels the globe and plays international tournaments twenty weeks out of the year. When she is home, she plays league matches for KB or for Helsingborg in Sweden or for a club in Bremen or for one in Evreux, 60 miles outside of Paris. It varies. She practices tennis from 9 until 11 in the morning and from 2 to 4 in the afternoon, followed by an hour and a half of either lifting weights or running. That’s pretty much how she’s operated since she was 16 years old. As a tennis player, her greatest dream is to play in a Grand Slam tournament.

On the official world rankings, where Caroline Wozniacki sits as mentioned at number 8, Hanne Skak Jensen is number 340. It has taken her a good five years as a senior player get there. First of all she had to break into the list. That comes from entering the only kind of professional tournament open to unranked players—the lowest of all levels sponsored by the International Tennis Federation (ITF), the so-called Future tournaments, whose total prize money is $10,000. About 250 of these tournaments are played each year, worldwide, from Colombia to China, most of them in Europe. Everyone starts here; only a few go beyond.

In order to enter a Future tournament, you have to make it through a qualification tournament. There can be as many as 128 players involved. 128 of the world’s most skillful and most ambitious tennis talents. You have to beat four of them in a row in order to qualify for the main tournament. If you can manage this, and pull out a win in your first-round match in the main tournament, then you have earned yourself one point for the world rankings2. And still you don’t have an actual ranking. You only get that once you’ve collected a point from three different tournaments. If you collect, say, seven points, you’re given a place around number 1,020. It took Hanne Skak Jensen a little over six months to get into the world rankings. It took her a further three years to collect enough points to be among the top 500 players and get admission to tournaments other than the Futures.

At that point, Hanne Skak Jensen had been through an elimination process that began in her early teens, when as a 13 year old she began to take trips into the city of Aarhus three times a week in order to train with some of Jutland’s most talented players. She quickly became one of the best in her age bracket, and as a 17 year old she moved away from home to enter Team Denmark’s Elite Center for Tennis in Farum, several miles outside of the capital in Copenhagen. There she roomed with three talented players of her own age and also from Jutland. They attended high school with 32 hours of study alongside 25 hours of practice. There were tournament travels fifteen weeks out of the year to such places as Västerås, Sweden, or Tampere, Finland, or Miskolc, an industrial city in the northeast of Hungary, where five people had to share a large wooden bed in a tiny dormitory room. It was, in Hanne Skak Jensen’s words, “Insanely hard. But I thought, I just want to get as good at tennis as possible.” And so she did. While others cracked, lost the drive, fell to depression, struggled with eating disorders, and moved back home to Jutland, Hanne Skak Jensen stayed. She became the best Danish player in her age bracket and, as an 18 year old, became a professional tennis player.

With help from KB, the Danish Tennis Federation, and her parents at home in Skanderborg, she scraped together the $35,000 necessary for her annual travel expenses. When she played her best, she could earn half of it back in prize money. She worked herself through countless Future tournaments, learned how to find the cheapest airplane tickets to the most desolate places, and developed sharp elbows when she fought with fifty other girls to sign up for just half a practice court for just half an hour.

Caroline Wozniacki has never had to concern herself with reserving plane tickets or practice courts. Her father, Piotr, has always traveled with her and generally taken care of practical matters. Nor has Wozniacki ever played in a Future tournament. As one of very few players, she simply skipped all of that. One could say she got a running start from a young age and jumped right into the big tournaments. It happened something like this:

Back in 1996 Anna and Piotr Wozniacki dragged their six-year-old daughter along with them to Køge Tennis Club, where she was given permission to hit against a practice wall while her parents played each other. She enjoyed it, little Caroline Wozniacki, and she started practicing with the other small children. When she turned 7, Piotr Wozniacki hired his daughter’s first private professional coach. They practiced two hours twice a week, in addition to team practices. Slowly the scope increased, and as an 11 year old Caroline Wozniacki’s week was fixed in such a way that she had Tuesdays off from tennis, but otherwise played every day, often several times a day, with interval and speed training on top of that. All in all she trained a good 20 hours a week.

The results did not take long in coming. Already at age 10 Wozniacki was a three-time National Champion in the girl’s under-12 division. Before long, no one questioned whether she was the country’s best player in her age bracket. Wozniacki was far too dominant for that. It was a question of being the country’s best player, period. By the time she entered the fifth grade, she was the best women’s player in Køge, and a year later twelve-year-old Caroline Wozniacki became one of the eight best players in Denmark when she made it into the quarterfinals of the National Championship at the senior level. Her family moved to Farum in order to be closer to the Elite Center, where Wozniacki now trained nearly 30 hours a week. She started playing in international junior tournaments and faced Europe’s best under-18. She beat them, and as a 14 year old—the same year she became Denmark’s youngest ever National Champion—she flew to Osaka, Japan and won one of the world’s premier tournaments, the World Super Junior Tennis Championship.

That kind of thing gets noticed. It gets noticed by, among others, tournament organizers, and not merely organizers of Junior or Future tournaments—no, it gets noticed among organizers of the big tournaments, the WTA tournaments, tournaments in which the highest ranked players participate. These people want to see child prodigies, the stars of tomorrow, give them a chance to test their skills against the established adults, maybe even be the ones to host their breakthrough. And so it was that Caroline Wozniacki, unranked and barely 15 years old, received a personal invitation to participate in a WTA tournament—first in Cincinnati, then in Stockholm, and later in Memphis. There was twenty times as much money to win and ten times as many ranking points to collect as in Västerås, Tampere, or Miskolc. To make it onto the world rankings, Wozniacki didn’t even have to win a match. She did anyway, of course. She won two in Memphis, got 30 points for that, and took a giant step up the rankings. Her senior career had begun. By the end of 2006, she sat at number 237.

Petra Martic held roughly the same ranking at the beginning of 2009. In February the 18 year old Croat played and won in an international match against Denmark. Hanne Skak Jensen remembers her clearly. Tall, 5’11, “good at placing the ball around the court,” and she had an elegant serve. A nonchalant serve. Martic would stand perfectly erect and toss the ball high above and slightly behind her head, which she’d roll back lazily while she arched her back and slowly raised her right arm, before suddenly leaping to hit the ball with tremendous power.

Thursday the 3rd of September, 2009, and Martic is practicing her serve in New York’s Grandstand Stadium. Since February she’s crept up to number 137 in the rankings, qualified for the U.S. Open, and in a few minutes she will play against Caroline Wozniacki in the tournament’s second round. The spectators are finding their seats; there’s a good 4,000 here, and it’s nearly dead quiet. Some use their match programs to fan the air in front of their faces. The thermometer reads 75-degrees in the shade, but there’s no shade here, nor any down on the court where Martic tosses yet another ball into the air, high and tending backwards.

In the stands behind me sits an older woman wearing long white slacks and a sun visor to match. “I think this is going to be a relatively short match,” she says to her neighbor.

She probably knows that it’s a game between the world’s number 8 and number 137. She knows Wozniacki is the big favorite. She may not know that Martic is Croatia’s biggest talent in women’s tennis, that she has won the national junior championship for under-12, 14, and 16, and that she is on a quick climb up the rankings. Maybe she also doesn’t know what it takes to make it into the second round of a Grand Slam tournament; what a grotesque amount of hours in her young life Martic has spent on the practice court, how many hundred thousand forehand shots she’s hit, and how many opponents, who were at least as dedicated, she has had to go up against, how many Hanne Skak Jensens she has fought off in order to be here. Maybe the well-dressed woman behind me simply doesn’t know how talented Petra Martic is. Maybe she knows, but also knows that Caroline Wozniacki is better. Not much better and not necessarily always better. In a year it could change, the differences at this level being as malleable as they are microscopic. But today Martic faces a player who is better than she is. To stand a chance, she has to play the match of her life.

The first five minutes go as expected. Wozniacki quickly takes a 1-0 lead. Martic doesn’t get a good handle on the Dane’s serves and sends three returns into the net. Her own service game doesn’t begin much better. Two easy backhand shots land outside the lines. 0-30. Martic is nervous. It’s the biggest match of her career. She’s never played in such a big stadium. She’s never played against a Top 10 player. What’s it even like to play against a Top 10 player? Does it go much faster than with other players? There were many questions before the match, and Martic already has her answer: No, Wozniacki doesn’t play faster than so many others. But she runs faster. She gets to just about everything and hardly ever makes an error.

Wozniacki also gets to the sliced drop shot that Martic tries in their next rally. She places it with precision down into the Croat’s backhand corner, all the way down to the baseline. Martic has her back to the court as she sends the ball high up in the air in an attempt to lob it over Wozniacki, who steps back quickly with her left arm pointing up towards the descending ball, until she leaves the ground, smashes, lands near the service line, and continues forward toward the net again. Martic has no problem getting to the smash, which lands in the middle of her court. She hits a forehand, which Wozniacki volleys into Martic’s backhand corner. From there Martic tries another lob, and this one has more depth on it. Wozniacki backs up, lunges, and swings vainly with her racquet—the ball is outside her reach and inside the line. 15-30.

Two elegant serves from Martic, one hard and flat, the other sliced out wide, are not returned by Wozniacki. 40-30. Martic is picking up. She sends Wozniacki from corner to corner with her forehand, just before she hits a drop shot with her backhand. It often happens that opponents use drop shots against Wozniacki. They know her weaknesses, and running forward into the court is one of them. Volleying is another, so even though she might get to the drop shots, she’ll have had to come to the net where her skills are markedly poorer than from the baseline. Wozniacki reaches Martic’s drop shot, getting to it just before it bounces a second time. At a full run, Wozniacki tries to place the ball delicately over the net. This also is not her strong point. The short ball is too long and too high. Martic runs up to it easily and hits a forehand winner. 1-1.

*

Of all the Grand Slam tournaments, the U.S. Open is Petra Martic’s personal favorite. There are several reasons for this. To begin with, she has good memories from here. In 2006 she played her first ever Grand Slam match in New York. 15-year-old Martic played in the Junior tournament and won three games in a row, before losing in the quarterfinal. Last year she got her Grand Slam debut as a senior player one late afternoon out on court 15. True enough, she lost, and it wasn’t actually a Grand Slam debut since it wasn’t actually the U.S. Open she was playing in. It was the qualifying tournament for the U.S. open. It works like this:

128 players participate in the first round of the main tournament, which is what the media covers, and which is the actual United States Open Tennis Championships. It is a coveted position to be among the 1283 and can be achieved in various ways. The safest bet is to be among the 104 best tennis players according to the world rankings. They get automatic entry45. Another possibility is to receive a wild card, a personal invitation, which the organizers deal out at their own discretion. There are eight of these, and they usually go to the host country’s most promising young talents and to previous top players who have slid down the rankings after a long break6. Such was the case for Kim Clijsters, this year’s most noteworthy wild card participant, who was once the world’s number one and moreover won the U.S. Open in 2005. She has been away from the tour for a couple of years, given birth to a child, and is now the hottest topic of conversation at this year’s tournament7.

The remaining 16 places are fought over. The fight takes place in the qualifying tournament, which each year occurs during the week before the main tournament. Here too it begins with 128 players. After three knockout rounds, sixteen players remain. They receive spots in the main tournament. Entrance into the qualifying tournament is more or less the same as with the main tournament: up to and including number 230 on the world rankings get automatic entry, while nine wild cards get dealt to the lucky ones.

The level of play is outrageously high. Here the stars of the future run around fighting for their breakthrough while the veterans try one last time before retirement. In 2009, for example, we see the 38-year-old Japanese player Kimoko Date, who was among the world’s best women players of the ‘90s and who played her first U.S. Open the year before Caroline Wozniacki was born. She is back after a twelve-year hiatus. Her playing style is like something from a lost age: perfectly straightforward shots, flat, with no spin, then suddenly going off at improbable angles. At the other end of the age spectrum we have Laura Robson. She is only 15 years old and sits at number 462 on the world rankings, which is strictly far too low to participate in the qualifying tournament. It’s just that last year, when she was 14, she won the Juniors at Wimbledon. That doesn’t happen so often. Since then Robson has been one of the most talked about talents on the tour and became the only non-American to receive a wild card.

Yes, and then we have Petra Martic. This year she once again entered the qualifying tournament, and after three wins in a row she was ready for the first round of the main tournament. It is never fun to face a player who’s come through the qualifiers. They are not odds-on favorites, but they have self-confidence. They have had three matches to find their rhythm, to get used to the courts and the balls and the surroundings and all the other miniscule things needed to feel completely at ease. They are, as it were, “inside the tournament.” That’s how it was for Petra Martic. It took her barely an hour to win her first-round match.

Eight minutes into her match with Wozniacki and the score is 1-1. Martic takes an 0-15 lead with a deep forehand shot straight into the feet of her Danish opponent, who doesn’t move fast enough and gets in the way of her own shot, which ends up in the net. A long baseline rally follows. Both players hit hard ground shots. All of them land deep enough to prevent any attacks. The volume’s up high: Wozniacki with her preparatory “Hoohr” just as the ball nears her, followed by the compressed “uhr” when she follows her shot through. “Hoohr-uhr” she says, as if she’s pulling the ball towards herself then shoving it away. Martic contents herself with a “hurh” at the moment of impact. And a frustrated “ahhhrr!” when she finally sends a forehand shot past Wozniacki’s baseline. 15-15.

Wozniacki serves at an angle. The ball hits the line and spins away from Martic, who gives up on trying to return it. 30-15. Wozniacki serves straight down the middle. Martic reacts quickly and gets her racquet to it, but her return lands in the middle of Wozniacki’s side of the court. Wozniacki hits it with her forehand, and what a forehand—She spins her whole body to the left with such a force that her feet leave the ground. Her racquet turns with her to the left, but by bending her wrist backwards a bit and opening the head of her racquet to the ball, she delays the shot by a fraction and makes the ball go to her right, as if deflected off her rotating body. It is supremely well-executed. Martic is several meters behind the baseline and all the way out in her backhand side when she slices a high backhand to Wozniacki who, anticipating just such a defensive shot, has moved a few steps into the court. She quickly takes a few more, so that standing in the middle of her service box, completely balanced and with her weight on her forward right foot, she can backhand volley into Martic’s backhand corner, which is where the ball came from, and is also the place that Martic is moving away from, giving her no chance to get back to in time. 40-15.

In the next rally, the roles are reversed. Martic returns a hard Wozniacki serve, no problem. She hits a forehand shot crosscourt, then one up the line, then crosscourt. Wozniacki runs from side to side. Martic goes up to the net and volleys down the line, the ball hits the tape, the crowd gasps, Wozniacki makes it to the ball, scoops it over, Martic volleys again, a clear winner, and the applause erupts. 40-30. The aggressive play continues. Again it’s Martic taking charge. She hits hard, flat, and close to the line, but this time something goes wrong. As soon as she’s forced Wozniacki deep into her backhand corner, Martic gets ahead of herself. She heads for the net to settle the point, expecting a defensive shot from Wozniacki, who’s slogging away from the back wall. It’s just that with Wozniacki, defensive shots often come turn into attacking shots. Such as, for instance, this double backhand she sends powerfully on its way while she jumps backwards and to the side. Martic hasn’t made it very far, she’s trapped in no-man’s land, neither forward nor back, and has to try a clumsy backhand. It goes into the net. 2-1.

Petra Martic is not a patient player. She’s all about finishing the rallies. That is the other reason why she really likes the U.S. Open: the courts are fast. Another way of looking at it is this. When Martic’s forehand shot hits the court here in New York, the ball behaves differently—very differently—than when it hits a court in, say, Paris. It all happens within five milliseconds, and it makes a world of difference. For Wozniacki, trying to get to the ball, these milliseconds influence everything from her movements and grip on the racquet to which shot she chooses to hit and the overall strategy she sets for the game. Here’s why:

In the course of those five milliseconds while the ball is in contact with the court, it flattens out, slides along the surface, drops its tempo, and change its spin before bouncing up again. The degree to which it does these things depends on how hard Martic hits the ball and on the angle at which the ball hits the court. And it also depends on the court’s surface. It depends on how hard and how rough it is.

When the ball hits the court it is vulnerable to two forces. One of them pushes the ball back up. This is the surface’s reactive force. It works vertically and is quite strong if, for instance, the ball lands on asphalt, and quite weak if it lands in a pile of sand. The other force works horizontally. It seizes on the ball’s forward movement. This is the surface’s friction.

At the French Open the ball lands on a hard, tightly packed mixture of limestone and ash covered with a millimeter-thin layer of crushed rust-red brick. While it slides several centimeters along the court’s surface, the ball moves like some kind of bulldozer that loosens the layer of crushed brick it lands on, pushing it forward. All that brick-moving naturally slows down the ball’s forward momentum but, more importantly, it also creates a tiny red hilltop that the ball has to get past before bouncing up from the court. The impediment creates a transmission of power. A part of the ball’s forward-moving speed is directed upwards. The result is a ball that bounces considerably higher and moves forward more slowly than it would at the U.S. Open.

The surface here in New York is made out of cement covered with a mixture of acrylic and rubber. The courts are hard and blue8. It is at least as hard as the clay courts in Paris, but the surface is much smoother. Each year before the start of the tournament it receives a treatment of four coats of acrylic paint mixed with a silica sands. It’s the sand that determines the court’s friction, and it’s the organizers who determine the quantity of sand in the paint mixture. In that way they can ratchet the court’s speed up or down according to their preference. If the surface is gritty enough, hard court can be just as slow as clay. That is not the case in New York. The courts here are among the fastest hard courts around. People say it’s a way of favoring American players, who are known for being hard hitters. Chances are higher that their risky style of play will produce winners on a fast court, where opponents have less time to run down the ball. The statistics reflect this: in the U.S. Open a quarter of the rallies are decided by winners. In the French Open, that happens in only a tenth of them.

In principle it’s equal for everyone, but of course it gives a big advantage to players who build their game on hitting winners. And Petra Martic is that kind of player. She hits two winners at the start of the match’s fourth game. First a volley, which she steps up to after having forced Wozniacki out wide with a well-placed offensive shot. Then a forehand winner, an easy one: Wozniacki has no time to swing her racquet when Martic hits one or her hardest serves, 110 mph, but she manages to reach out and block the ball back. It floats in a soft arc back over the net, but just over the net, where it bounces so high that Martic easily hits it down the court and away from Wozniacki. Unfortunately for the young Croat, she also makes three errors. Three complete and utterly unforced errors. 30-40, break point to Wozniacki. Martic shakes her head. She can’t afford this kind of slip in concentration. She hits her hardest serve of all, 112 mph, out to Wozniacki’s backhand side then quickly rips a forehand shot crosscourt. The Dane doesn’t have a chance. 40-all, deuce. Wozniacki soon gets another chance to break serve when she hits a double backhand down the line. Then it’s Martic’s turn to be on the offensive. Once again she forces Wozniacki far left with an angled forehand, but Wozniacki runs it down—she runs down everything on these blue rubber courts—gets it back, and Martic ends up losing her serve by sending a forehand into the net.

Caroline Wozniacki doesn’t really have a favorite playing surface. She is, in her own words, “an all-around player.” On the slow clay courts, her patient style of play and strong physical conditioning have their way. She can’t be worn down. On hard courts her footwork is in a class of its own and, being a counter puncher, she often has the good fortune of parrying her opponents’ hard shots and turning their speed into her own. The same happens on grass, the fastest surface of all, where the ball snags on the grass and often bounces only knee-high. Here Wozniacki shows her ability to work from a low a center of gravity. Crouched with her knees so low they sometimes bump the court when she hits the ball, she’s manages to scoop up the shallowest of balls.

It is telling that her three tournament wins in 2009 have come on three different surfaces: clay, grass, and hard court. It is also telling that she lets the results dictate her preferences: “Before I started the clay court season, I thought grass and hard court were my favorite surfaces, but now that I’ve had some big results on clay I think it’s the best surface for me,” she said in May after getting to the final at one of the season’s biggest clay court tournaments in Madrid.

She is talking about favorite surfaces here, but it isn’t a matter of feelings or emotions. It isn’t a question of where she feels the most comfortable, or what she thinks is the most fun. It may sound as though she’s talking about preferences, but Wozniacki doesn’t say anything about what she prefers. She simply states what works. Which may very well end up being one and the same. It may be that Wozniacki simply has no preference until after the game is played. If it’s the relationship between being, on the one hand, and doing on the other, then maybe what we find is that Wozniacki doesn’t just do what she does, because she is who she is. She doesn’t do best on the surface she is happiest to play on. It’s closer to the opposite. She is happiest to play on the surface she does the best on. She simply is what she does. When she wins on grass, she’s a grass court player. When she wins on clay, she’s a clay court player. And when she wins on grass, she’s a grass court player again. It isn’t necessarily an inconsistency. Maybe the question about favorite surface is simply a question she allows to remain open. Like an emptiness that’s also a potential. What good would come from settling it? What’s the use of having labeled yourself as a clay court player when you then step onto a grass court? Wouldn’t it inevitably restrict your performance? In a way, Wozniacki does have a favorite surface. Time will tell what it is. And it will continue to do so.

Right now, hard court agrees with her. Wozniacki leads 3-1 over Martic and has just released a first serve with spin on it. The Croat hits it with the frame of her racquet and the ball flies several feet out of bounds. The next rally doesn’t last much longer. Martic makes a forehand return, and Wozniacki sprays a back hand shot over the baseline. 15-all. One of the match’s longest rallies follows.

It begins with a second serve, a weak second serve, which Wozniacki doesn’t so much hit as brush. If the sound of her first serve, which was hit straight and clean but landed a few inches behind the service line, can be compared to the sound of a drumbeat, then the second serve sounds like she’s traded in the drum sticks for a jazz drummer’s brushes. It is the sound of a kick serve. It is full of topspin, and that’s why Wozniacki uses it for a second serve.

It’s a question of minimizing the risk. In the absence of third serves, second serves generally involve with less risk-taking than first serves. Risk factor, in the case of tennis serves, should be understood as the size of the invisible area a serve must go through in order to land inside the lines; an area whose lower boundary is the minimal height needed for the ball to pass over the net, and whose upper boundary is the maximum height permissible for the ball to have and still drop down and land inside the service box.

The problem of course is that Petra Martic, and anyone else playing at this level can hit a winner easy as anything if Wozniacki serves soft balloon balls that arc over the net. Her serves have to arc, but they cannot be soft. Her serves have to be hard and with enough height to clear the net, while still descending drastically on the other side of the net. That’s why she tosses it up and a little behind herself before hitting it. And when she hits it, she has her arm bent back over her head, her racquet practically horizontal and the stringbed vertical. Wozniacki doesn’t strike directly through the ball as she does with her hard serves. No, she drags the racquet over the ball with an upward motion, so the strings brush the ball, which then zips off with an unbelievable amount of topspin. The ball rotates more than 30 times a second, which is crucial because it’s left Wozniacki’s racquet at nearly 140 km/h and with hardly any downward direction. Without spin the ball wouldn’t have a chance of hitting the court before flying by Martic’s service line 18 meters away. Since the days of Sir Isaac Newton physicists have tried to discover why a tennis ball hit with topspin acts as it does when it flies through the air—they still haven’t agreed9. The best current theory chalks it up to atmospheric pressure. The top side of a topspin ball moves forward and, so to speak, gets a lot of wind blown in its “fluffy” fur while the underside moves backwards, along with the air. This creates a higher air pressure on the top side, so the ball is literally being pressed downward, down toward the court, which it hits at such a steep angle that it bounces back high.

In this instance it bounces not just high, but high and a bit to the right, because Wozniacki doesn’t brush it straight down and up; she brushes it slightly cockeyed. Her racquet moves from 7:00 to 1:00 on the dial rather than from 6:00 to 12:00, so in addition to topspin, the serve also has sidespin. In theory, it’s the perfect second serve. Safe, because it allows the ball to keep a good distance from the top of the net and, at the same time, difficult to attack because it drops drastically in order to bounce high to the right, the kick, high up into the right-handed opponent’s backhand side, way up at shoulder-height, where it is difficult to get a decent hit on it.

Wozniacki’s kick serve is not the perfect second serve. In fact, it’s one of her weaker shots. This one is no exception. She brushes the ball a little too lightly, and gets neither the speed nor the distance she needs. Martic stands about a meter inside the court and returns with a double backhand, hit downwards, down into the court. It’s meant as an offensive shot, but there’s not enough power behind it, and Wozniacki hits a crosscourt backhand, full on, all the way down to the baseline, where Martic, off balance, manages a backhand return. It has just as much distance and lands a few centimeters from Wozniacki’s baseline, and the Dane has to back up quickly and set up her forehand, which she sends high and with topspin down into Martic’s backhand side, a defensive and slow-paced shot that allows her to get back into position. It also gives Martic time to run around the ball, onto the far side, so instead of hitting a backhand she can hit a forehand from her backhand side. Martic stands all the way out by the side line, so the ball is on her inside when she hits it away from herself crosscourt. It is an inside-out forehand, an offensive shot, and Wozniacki has to sprint left to make it in time for a double backhand. She sends it crosscourt once more, with depth and spin, to Martic’s backhand, a typical counter shot from Wozniacki. It forces Martic to hit a backhand while leaping backwards. Now it’s her turn to be on the defensive, and Wozniacki’s turn to run around the ball and position herself on the edge of her backhand side in order to hit an offensive forehand. It had better be offensive because Wozniacki has left her entire court wide open, she simply isn’t there, finding herself out past the sideline, where she hits a hard forehand, so hard that her right leg wobbles. The ball shoots straight up the line, inside-in, Martic gets to it and tries to hit her forehand crosscourt, as far from Wozniacki as possible, but the shot isn’t angled enough and the Dane quickly covers the width of the court. She leaps the last bit and is suspended in mid-air while hitting another forehand down the line, this time harder and deeper and closer to the sideline. It’s her rally now, she’s taken charge. Martic is forced well behind the baseline. She reaches the ball at full stride and slices a backhand that floats off, high and slow. If Wozniacki had followed her forehand to the net she could easily end the rally now, but Wozniacki is nowhere near the net, she’s stayed back, and from here she can see Martic’s slice land all the way down at the baseline. The balance of power is restored. Wozniacki and Martic exchange a handful of controlled ground strokes, each on the lookout for an opportunity to take the initiative. None such arises. From her backhand side Martic suddenly decides to cut under the ball, to slice with one hand. Unless she’s forced to, it isn’t a shot she hits very often. Wozniacki practically never hits it. Here it comes, flat and sluggish, as if the ball floated on heavy air. The bounce is low. Wozniacki curls herself up and bends her knees in order to guide the ball over the net, but she fails. The shot clips the tape and drops down on Wozniacki’s side of the court. 15-30, and a big dose of self-confidence to the impatient Croat, who might be able to keep up in long rallies after all. At any rate, a similar scenario is repeated: 16 shots exchanged, ending with a stray forehand from Wozniacki. 15-40. Three unforced errors in a row. It’s not like her, and it doesn’t suit her. Wozniacki swings at the ball in frustration.

She turns to the ball boy, who throws her a ball, then another. It has possibly escaped her attention that the ball boy really isn’t a ball boy. In the stands, the gray-haired man who sprints by and gathers up the balls is, at any rate, a popular subject of conversation.

“He looks like he’s 60 years old,” says a young guy in the row behind me.

That’s not too far off. Jerry Loughran is 61 years old. His right knee is swollen, left calf wrapped in bandages, and he swallows pain killers a couple times a day to make it through the grind. Two years ago he was sifted out during preliminary trials, but this year the retired attorney was chosen among the 100 who, along with a couple hundred repeats from last year, make up the tournaments assembled company of ball boys and ball girls. Of course, they’re not called that here in the U.S.—unofficial world champions of politically correct language10--where, in the spirit of diversity, the term changes to the gender- and age-neutral ‘ball persons’.

“This is America. Anyone has the opportunity,” rings proudly from the organizers, and there is something typically American about the ball persons, but it’s not only because American retirees run around next to Polish teenagers and girls with only one leg11. Take the way they send the balls down to the other end of the court after the completion of a service game. Across the globe this is done by rolling the balls in a controlled fashion from ball persons at the one end of the court to those at the net and then further on to the other end of the court. The balls look as though they’re being neatly pulled along by a string. That’s not how it’s done at the U.S. Open. In New York the balls are hurled through the air, as hard as possible, directly and without delay across the net to fellow ball persons at the other end. It looks like a small shower of missiles, the way the balls fly off in all directions. The distance is over 30 meters, and they usually hit their target. Baseball isn’t America’s national past time for nothing.

Nor does it seem accidental that Americans are the ones to have replaced this laborious and tradition-bound European practice with something different, practical, and immediately effective. Call it economic utilitarianism or American pragmatism, but the ball has to go from point A to point B, and it gets there fastest through the air, hence it should be thrown.

That’s never how it’s done at Wimbledon. In south-west London the ball boys and ball girls are, first of all, always children, all 250 of them recruited from ninth and tenth grade classes at local schools. Secondly, they exhibit such a professional civility that one would think they’ve had a decade of formal training as butlers. None of their movements is left to chance. A rolling ball is to be greeted with a bended knee, feet in a V-position, heels together, hands on the ground, palms up and slanted forward like a dustpan. Only thus.

When a ball person at the U.S. Open tosses the ball to a player, the feed, as it’s called in the technical jargon, it is common to see him or her standing with his or her weight on one leg, and holding the balls in hands stretched somewhat casually in front of the body. When a player requests a ball, it’s tossed with a rapid motion in the underarm, or sometimes simply with wrist-action. It comes across as an unceremonious feed.

A ball boy at Wimbledon always stands with legs slightly spread, one arm behind his back, and the other one fully stretched toward the sky. The grip on the ball is secure, four parallel fingers over the bottom side of the ball, thumb to the left, allowing the ball’s front, the side that’s facing the player, to appear perfectly, completely yellow. It is important for the player to have a clear view of the front of the ball, because it’s all about the ball. The boy’s fingers are only in the way. He then tosses it with a perfect half circle motion, his arm initially stretched, beginning at a point above his head and ending behind his back. Then he takes a ball from his concealed hand, which operates like a sort of ball dispenser, and slips the throwing arm, now reloaded, along the side of his body and up over his head, until it is once again stretched out and ready to feed.

It comes across as rather ceremonious. Add to this the procession on and off the court and their well-drilled rotation around their own axis, and you have the tennis equivalent to the changing of the guards in front of Buckingham Palace.

The French don’t skimp on formalities either. The ball boys and girls in Paris remind one in many ways of the British and, like their colleagues in London, are chosen after a rigorous five-month-long training program, complete with written exams, physical tests, and exercises in coordination12. What really stand out are the differences in temperament. Where a Wimbledon ball girl’s movements come across as controlled, as though she constantly weighed the need for efficiency against the necessity of discretion, a French ball girl is aggressive in a different way. It shows itself when, for example, she’s retrieved a stray ball and has to return to her place. Even though it’s only fifteen feet away, she accelerates to full speed for the first ten feet in order to brake dramatically at the last five. The same intensity comes out when she has to roll a ball to a colleague. This she does with a three-step running start, and as she begins to roll the ball—assuming she’s right-handed—she stretches her left hand forward, then her right hand goes up and down in a huge swinging motion that ends with a forward-moving underhanded roll along the clay. The procedure is invariable, so if she has to deliver three balls, she repeats it three times from start to finish, including the three-step running start, which means that when the last ball rolls away, she has usually moved herself a long ways forward and now finds herself so close to the receiving ball boy or ball girl that she might as well hand it off. Of course, she doesn’t do that—she swings her arm as powerfully as ever, only to slow the movement at the last moment so the ball can just roll along for the remaining few feet. She’s passionate about her job alright.

In spite of the differences, a common goal lies behind the carefully practiced customs of all ball distributors. The goal is, first and foremost, to be as unnoticeable as possible to the ones who really do matter: the players. When they are serving, they want to be thinking of only one thing, and that is their serve. They shouldn’t notice how a ball boy stands, or how he holds the ball, or how he tosses it. He should be like air to them, and the only way he can be like that is by being a carbon copy of all the other ball boys or ball girls the players come across in the course of a tournament. The more invisible he is, the better he’s done his job. This is not the place for a display of style. It’s a question of respecting the level of concentration needed to play tennis at this level.

*

 

Wozniacki doesn’t look like she’ll let herself be distracted by ball person Jerry Loughran’s age or his relaxed style. She glances at the two balls he’s thrown her, chooses one of them, and lets the other drop to the ground before knocking it back to him with her racquet.

The score is 3-1 and 15-40. Wozniacki takes her time before serving, more time than usual. She stares forward vacantly and takes three deep breaths, her shoulders rising and falling with each one. Up to now it’s been hard to see a difference between the world’s number 8 and number 137. They’ve had 30 rallies, with Wozniacki winning 16 and Martic 14. But there is a difference, and from here on it becomes clear. Take, for example, the double backhand. Wozniacki just hits it better than Martic—freer, harder, more reliable, and more flowing. There is something stiff about Martic’s swing, something contrived, as though the backhand were something she uses rather than something she does. Three backhand errors from the Croat turn the game to Wozniacki’s advantage.

But it’s something else—something beyond the groundstroke toolbox—that determines the course for the rest of the match. Martic doesn’t just lose the game, she loses courage. You can see it in her body language. Her footsteps over to her chair are heavy, and they are even heavier when she walks back onto the court to serve. Her shoulders hang down low, not a lot, but enough to make her movements look gloomy. That’s it exactly, as she’ll say later. At this point, she stopped believing that she could beat Wozniacki. The belief was small to begin with. Now she’d blown her chance to break serve and was down 4-1 against one of the best players in the world at one of the biggest tournaments. One could say that the circumstances overwhelmed her. It’s perfectly understandable that they did. Here’s the thing, though: I’ve never seen or heard of something like this happening to Caroline Wozniacki.

If you talk, for instance, with the women who played against and beat a 12-year-old Wozniacki when she first started participating in the senior-level Danish Championships, they’ll tell you about a girl with a different sort of attitude than the other young talents. It’s not unusual for the experienced players to win a few intimidation points when they play against small schoolgirls who find themselves suddenly struck by fear when facing grown-up, well-established stars. That fear did not strike Caroline Wozniacki. No one intimidated her. She started with a thorough and regular warm-up; reviewed a detailed strategy with her father, Piotr, and had high hopes, which she didn’t try to hide. This was no time to goof off with girlfriends. From the first ball, Wozniacki ran fast, worked hard, and hit everything she could. She wasn’t afraid to call balls out, even if they were close. If she saw them out, she called them out. From the sidelines, Piotr cheered and made comments in Polish, and on the court Caroline Wozniacki stayed completely focused. It apparently meant nothing to her level of engagement that she was behind 5-1 in the third set. Her opponents would still have to fight for every point, all the way to the end.

There were some who called it un-Danish and not very respectful of elders. Others were delighted to watch this very young girl having her go. They saw a 12-year-old who was neither bashful nor cocky—she jumped right in, just one of the girls. Both on and off the court, she behaved as though she belonged. Outspoken and entitled. Former national team player Rikke Faurfelt, who is 10 years older than Wozniacki and beat her the first couple times they met at the Danish Championships, uses the phrase “self-assured” to describe her former opponent. She was aware of her worth and aware of her goal. But maybe she was also unaware. Unaware of her age when as a 12 year old she hung out with 22 year olds. Unaware of the limits of her abilities when she met the very best. Unaware of how outplayed she was when she was behind 5-1 and still fought on, believing. Call it self-confidence or naiveté; regardless, it translates to this: doubt was, and is, a very rare visitor to Caroline Wozniacki.

Let me share a particularly relevant quote from her. During the French Open in May, 2009, I interviewed Wozniacki and asked her about her friendships on the tour and the conflict of interests that arise when your best friends are also your closest competitors. In an attempt to explain what I meant by a “conflict of interest,” I told a personal anecdote about combining friends and competitive sports. It took place during the under-12 Badminton Championships at my local sports club, where I had made it into the final. Here I was to meet the winner of the match between Lars Bo and my best friend, Niels. I rooted, of course, for Niels, except that I didn’t really because Niels was, as opposed to Lars Bo, much better than me and would with near certainty beat me in the final. I felt like a hypocrite and a terrible friend, and it wasn’t much fun. Caroline Wozniacki listened closely to my story, thought for just a moment, and answered in a way that was rather unhelpful to the interview’s theme but telling in the current context:

“We must just be different. I always think I’ll win, no matter who I play.”

Petra Martic thinks she’s going to lose. And she does just that. For the rest of the match she doesn’t win a single game, or even come close.

She is behind 4-1 and has just double faulted. 15-30. She goes to the net on a weak forehand approach and gets passed easily. Martic doesn’t even try to get to the ball. She lowers her head and walks back to serve. Her first serve is long, her second is wide. 5-1.

In the second set with the score 1-0 to Wozniacki, the two players swap sides, just as they do at the end of every odd-numbered game. The set’s first change-over occurs without a break. The players walk directly from one end to the other without sitting down in their chairs. This means that the spectators waiting outside the stadium are not allowed in. They can’t come in until the third game finishes.

That goes for my mother’s cousin, Flemming Haahr, Director and co-owner of the Bramming-based company Allison A/S, which manufactures and sells soaps and creams. Flemming Haahr and his wife Lis Hansen landed in Newark airport a good two hours ago. With them they had Allison A/S board member Per Borup and Bente Christensen, the company’s Chief of Finance, who also brought their partners. The group had flown to New York to celebrate the release of the company’s latest line of body and hair care products, “Caroline Wozniacki—Love All.”

They had just managed to drop off their bags at the Hilton Time Square before two yellow cabs whisked over to Queens and the USTABJKNTC. Now they’re standing beside the stairs to Grandstand Stadium, the score is 1-0, there’s a change-over, and they are not allowed to come inside. While Flemming Haahr visits the concession stand, Per Borup explains to the guard that they’ve flown all the way from Denmark, at the personal invitation of Wozniacki herself, to see this match. It works. The same moment when yet another of Martic’s forehands goes into the net, putting Wozniacki up 2-0, they receive the unusual favor of being allowed to find their places, and step inside the stadium with their arms loaded with burgers and Budweiser.

Here they watch Martic hit a backhand long and a forehand wide before the disillusioned Croat double faults and gives Wozniacki the chance to break serve. The pace is picking up now. Wozniacki sends Martic from side to side before ending the rally with an angled crosscourt backhand winner. 3-0, change-over.

Flemming Haahr has thought about making Wozniacki-soaps for a long time. They discussed it in the company as early as 2006, but it didn’t go anywhere. Wozniacki was still a no-name at that point, at least internationally speaking. Then a few years went by, she broke into the Top 20, and won a couple of tournaments. The company took the matter up once again, reached a conclusion, made the calls, and by the end of November both Piotr and Caroline Wozniacki got their first whiff of fragrance samples lightly scented with green tea. An agreement was settled. A few months later shampoos, conditioners, and body scrubs landed on the shelves at Denmark’s superstores.

You might say that Caroline Wozniacki is Flemming Haahr’s living advertisement. Right now he’s watching her pull ahead 4-0, then 5-0, thanks to Martic making one hopeless error after another. The Croatian qualifier has run out of talent. For Flemming Haahr the question is how much further Wozniacki’s talent will reach. It would be best if it could reach all the way to number one in the world rankings. In the men’s game, it’s enough to be among the best, but in the women’s only the top spot matters. Then there’d be an interest from foreign countries—and he hasn’t purchased the rights to markets in Germany, France, Spain, Italy, and Russia for nothing. Allison A/S is counting on Wozniacki becoming the world’s best tennis player.

For now the Director has to content himself with the ace that Wozniacki has just launched. It leads to a triple-match point. 6-1, 5-0, 40-0 is the score. She needs just one more point. Martic hits an easy backhand into the net. Wozniacki doesn’t celebrate too extravagantly, pumps her right fist in the air, and heads for the net. She smiles when she offers her hand to Martic, and smiles again when she stands in the middle of the court blowing kisses 360-degrees around. She looks very happy.

It’s one of the reasons Flemming Haahr sees great potential in Wozniacki. “She’s sweet and natural,” he says. Both when she shares her joy with the crowd and also when, for instance, she shows up to the contract signing at Copenhagen’s Custom House restaurant and asks, “Are you Julie?” then gives Flemming Haahr’s 9-year-old daughter the official pink and turquoise player’s towel that Wozniacki had just brought back from the Australian Open. Or afterwards when she orders spaghetti and meatballs from Julie’s kid’s menu because it’s the only thing she really feels like having. It’s spontaneous and guileless, and this is what will give Wozniacki “staying power beyond her playing days” explains Flemming Haahr. In the same way that Björn Borg became an ambassador for the sport of tennis. Or like Tiger Woods was for golf, until his family man image was destroyed by a small array of mistresses and a predilection for prostitutes. It’s a matter of staying on the clean side. “We’d have a big problem if Caroline started snorting cocaine,” says Flemming Haahr. They wouldn’t have even considered sponsoring Wozniacki if she showed up in tabloids every time she went into the city. “Someone like Frederik Fetterlein13, a party animal who wastes his talent—sponsors don’t want to be associated with that,” he says. “Unless you’re Red Bull.”

And then of course there’s appearance. Wozniacki is, in Flemming Haahr’s words, “very, very attractive,” and attractive people have a way of getting noticed. This applies not least of all to women tennis players—such as Wozniacki. And Sorana Cirstea, her opponent in the third round.

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1 And I have only seen Caroline Wozniacki play outside of Denmark.

2 And about $200 in prize money.

3 For instance, someone who participates and loses her first match still receives $19,000 in prize money.

4 And generally they are the ones who have least need of the prize money.

5 In 2009 the cut actually should have been set at the 107 best players because the world’s number 88, French player Nathalie Dechy, was pregnant, and number 54, British player Anne Keothvong, lost her prized ticket when she ran into a fence during a doubles match in Stanford one month before the U.S. Open, and Austrian Tamira Paszek, number 59, had a back injury, so all three had to drop out, which opened a spot for Slovakian Kristina Kucova, that is, if number 902 in the rankings, the American Meghann Shaugnessy, who was so unlucky as to have torn her meniscus a short two years earlier, hadn’t chosen to make use of the rule concerning protected rankings, which spares players coming back from injury from having to go through the hell of the Futures, allowing them instead to enter eight tournaments, including one Grand Slam, at their pre-injury rank, which in Shaugnessy’s case was number 61, which would mean good enough to receive automatic entry to the U.S. Open. Laura Granville (364/wrist injury/84) did the same, and so Kucova had to go through the qualifying tournament, where she lost in the first round.

6 Among the eight lucky ones in 2009 were, besides five young Americans, Kristina Mladenovic from France and Olivia Rogowski from Australia. These were chosen by the French and Australian tennis federations, a privilege granted in exchange for the Americans having the same right during the French and the Australian Open. It helps to be part of the family.

7 The rule about protected ranks (see footnote above) applies furthermore to players who have been away from the tour due to a pregnancy, but not if the player in question waits over 12 months after the delivery to return to the court. Clijsters waited 17 months.

8 The blue color, U.S. Open Blue®, replaced green back in 2005 so TV viewers could better follow the yellow ball on their screens. Blue is closer to purple, the complementary color of yellow, than green is.

9 Most recently Professor Claes Johnson and research assistant Johan Hoffman at Sweden’s Royal Technical School have caused a stir with their article, an abstract of which reads, “We present, based on computing turbulent solutions of the Navier-Stokes equations, a new explanation of the Magnus effect causing a topspin tennis ball to curve down (…) We show that the classical explanation of the Magnus effect based on potential flow with circulation is non-physical and thus incorrect.”

10 A few examples include poor=economically marginalized; blind=visually impaired; handicapped=differently abled; ugly=aesthetically challenged; homeless=residentially flexible.

11 The first ball person with a prosthetic leg debuted in 2008.

12 The extent of their training once again says something about the number of details a European ball boy or ball girl must master in comparison to an American, who doesn’t begin the certification process until a couple of months before the tournament, then has one or two days of training, and is otherwise encouraged to watch a lot of tennis in the meantime.

13 Former Danish tennis pro.

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