Caroline Wozniacki had one of her toughest years as a professional in 2016, and the Danish star hit a bit of a crossroads in the middle of the season when an ankle injury forced her out of action for months. But her mental fortitude and fighters mentality allowed her to have a resurgent conclusion to the year.
The former number one began the year ranked 17th in the world and played her first tournament in Auckland, New Zealand. She won the first three matches of the year and reached the semifinals of that tournament before falling to American Sloane Stephens.
That defeat was the first of three straight losses for Wozniacki, including a first-round exit at the Australian Open to Yulia Putintseva after winning the first set comfortably. She followed that up by losing in straight sets to Dominika Cibulkova in St. Petersburg for a rocky opening month to open up her season.
Her ranking continued to slip, as her inconsistent play reared its ugly head, and after losing her opening match at Indian Wells, she fell down to 25th in the world. The real adversity surfaced after an ankle injury in practice sidelined her for much of the clay-court season, including being forced to withdraw from the French Open, the first Grand Slam she had missed in her pro career.
The long layoff caused her ranking’s free fall to persist, and she dropped down to 34th in the world, her lowest ranking since May of 2008.
She returned after 10 weeks to the Nottingham Open and won her first match back, knocking off Turkey’s Cagla Buyukakcay.
“It’s nice to be back, it felt nice to be back on court, there are always things I want to do better but all in all for a first match back in 10 weeks, it’s just great,” said Wozniacki at the Nottingham Open. “I felt a little bit rusty but at the same time it could have been a lot worse so I am pleased with result and pleased with how I fought.”
Those good vibes would not last long, however, as she was defeated in the second round of the Nottingham Open, and headed into Wimbledon unseeded for the first time in her career. Her Wimbledon run was short-lived and she was bounced by Svetlana Kuznetsova in straight sets in the opening round.
“It kind of just sucks right now to be out of the tournament,” said a somber Wozniacki after the defeat. “I thought I played some really good tennis in Eastbourne and obviously was hoping I could step up from there and do more damage today. But it wasn’t enough. It’s been a tough year in general. It’s been some injuries; it’s been some bad draws. It’s been uphill. But it has to turn, it has to go the other way eventually. I’m just going to take the punches I’m getting and just try and learn from it and try and move forward. I know that by now I can’t expect an easy draw. I just need to be ready and improve my game even more so that I can beat the top players in the earlier rounds, then it can kind of open up from there.”
That fighter’s mentality from Wozniacki wasn’t something that happened overnight, it was instilled in her years prior when she was a little girl in Denmark. She began her practices at 6:00 a.m. and would return to the club after 11:00 p.m. for more practice. As she got better, she would travel the world competing in junior tournaments, while her parents sacrificed to be able to afford the travel and court time. From an early age, Wozniacki knew she wanted to be a tennis player, and worked diligently to make her dream a reality.
When she won the Danish Junior Under 12 championships, she told a TV reporter her goal was “To be the best in the world.”
She reached that goal late in 2010, becoming the world number one, a distinction she would hold until January of 2012.
But since that point, there was a steady decline in her performance and it reached its apex in the middle of 2016, dropping out of the top 50 for the first time since February of 2008. She would have to channel the mentality that helped her rise to stardom in the first place, and coming back to a familiar setting would help her regain her form.
Entering the U.S. Open as the 74th ranked player in the world, there weren’t many people who were expecting the Dane to make much noise in the year’s final Grand Slam. She escaped a scare in the opening round, coming back from a set down to beat American qualifier Taylor Townsend 3-6, 6-3, 6-4, and then followed that up with a 6-4, 6-4 triumph, and a bit of revenge, over ninth-seed Svetlana Kuznetsova in the second round.
Wozniacki then defeated Romania’s Monica Niculescu 6-3, 6-1 to move into the Round of 16, and afterwards, she talked about her mentality and motivation prior to the U.S. Open.
“Having to skip the whole clay season and still not feeling 100 percent going into the grass season, I started thinking during the grass season that I’m going to get some matches in here and that’s going to get me really into the hard court season and I will be 100 percent ready for that,” said Wozniacki. “So I went into the grass season just trying to get momentum going. Then hurting myself in Washington wasn’t really part of the plan. I was like, ‘You know what? I’m just going to take it as it comes. I know that I’m going to get a tough opponent early on in the draw. If I play well, I know I can beat her and then it can open up for me a little. Coming here, I had been hitting well in practice, so it’s all about the mental game now. My body feels good, so there’s no reason why I shouldn’t be able to play well here.”
The former number one shook off the injuries, the inconsistent play and even rumors about her potential retirement to play some of her best tennis over the two weeks in Queens, following up her victory over Niculescu with a clinical straight-set win over eighth-seeded American Madison Keys to reach the U.S. Open quarterfinals for the first time since she made the 2014 final.
After losing just two games in a route over Anastasija Sevastova, Wozniacki’s run came to an end when she lost to eventual champion Angelique Kerber in the semifinals.
Despite the defeat, Wozniacki has a lot to take away from her run at the U.S. Open.
“Obviously, right now I’m a little disappointed, but at the end of the day, it was a good tournament. Something I can be proud of,” Wozniacki reflected. “I came into this tournament ranked 74th, and a lot of people were probably ruling me out, but it’s nice to prove people wrong once again. I had a nice run.”
So while 2016 was a year Wozniacki would most likely like to forget, there is a lot for her to build off of heading into the 2017 campaign. She is still just 26-years-old and despite rumors swirling around during the U.S. Open of her imminent retirement, Wozniacki has plenty left in the tank. Following the U.S. Open, Wozniacki continued her resurgent play, winning titles in Tokyo and Hong Kong, before finishing her season in Luxembourg.
With a new found mindset and injury-free body, Wozniacki has rediscovered the fight that helped a little girl from Denmark achieve her dreams, and she hopes to use it to fight her way back into the top of the rankings, and eventually lift her first Grand Slam trophy.
“Before, it was all about, ‘Okay, I have to win this; I have to do that,’” said Wozniacki of her mentality. “Now I’m like, I don’t have to do anything. You know, whatever is meant to be, it’s going to be, and I’m just going to give myself the best shot out there. And I think I’m enjoying the whole atmosphere and everything else so much more.”
Brian Coleman is the Senior Editor for Long Island Tennis Magazine. He may be reached at email@example.com.