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Blondes Away! 10/30/2010 - 11:09 PM

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by Pete Bodo

As Caroline Wozniacki prepares to play for the WTA Championships title (a win there would be Wozniacki's most significant title to date), we're entitled to wonder: Is she the next dominant WTA champion, plucking titles off the Grand Slam tree as if they were low-hanging fruit (see "G" for Graf, or "S" for Serena), or the next...Elena Dementieva?

Dementieva stole some of Wozniacki's thunder this week, choosing to retire from tennis at the same time that Wozniacki sewed up the year-end No. 1 ranking. So one blonde is out, one blonde is in, maintaining a tradition while also paring it down. Wozniacki, of course, has already surpassed Dementieva's career-high ranking of No. 3. But can she build a comparable resume, which includes two Olympic medals (including a gold in singles at the 2008 Beijing Games), nine semifinal—or better—finishes at Grand Slam events, and a 22-5 singles record in Fed Cup?

Two of those Fed Cup wins came in the 2005 final against a strong French squad. Dementieva put on a master class. She beat Mary Pierce and Amelie Mauresmo in singles, and partnered with Dinara Safina to win the critical fifth doubles (defeating the same two women Dementieva subdued in singles) in one of her career-best moments. And it was a championship tie played away from Dementieva's Moscow home, at the home of the French Open, Stade Roland Garros. In a way, that performance is emblematic of the realities that govern the WTA (as well as ATP): If you're not winning majors, you're chopped liver, at least as far as broad acclaim goes. But really, there's a lot more to having as long and rich a career as was Dementieva's.

A player like Dementieva—ask the next cab driver you hail if he recognizes the name—wins an awful lot of tennis matches. Many of those wins are resonant and certainly deeply satisfying. Kind of like writing a novel that's highly praised by your peers, and the most discerning of critics, but fails to crack the all-important best seller list, or attract a big, fat option deal from some movie producer. Why not me?, you may find yourself wondering. To which the only real answer is, Who knows? The prize-money check may balm what wounds a Slamless pro sustains, as does the respect of her peers and the cognescenti. But there's a bigger prize out there, and everyone knows it.

But it's easy to place so much emphasis on the majors, especially when it comes to players not our own. As important as the majors are, they're also to some degree a least-common denominator, universally used to judge players in who we don't necessarily have some vested interest. When you judge a player by her success at the majors—and it's not as if Dementieva has been a total Grand Slam flop—it's a little bit like adopting money earned as a baseline measure of success in business. (Or in the arts, although we're not supposed to say that. But would you really love, say, a Julian Schnabel—or even know who the hail he is—if his work wasn't going for $5 million a pop?) Or put it this way: If that cabbie to whom you put that question about Dementieva picked you up in Moscow, I'd bet dollars to donuts that he or she certainly would recognize her name and her accomplishments. But would he know the name Francesca Schiavone, or Gaston Gaudio?

Wozniacki in some ways has a tougher row to hoe than did Dementieva, despite having jumped out to a significantly better start. Dementieva, who's 29, didn't hit her career-high ranking until last season; Wozniacki, ranked No. 1, is all of 20. With 12 singles titles to her credit, Wozniacki is already just four short of Dementieva's career haul (16). And despite their age difference (even top players are generally thought to need a significant period of apprenticeship before ascending to No. 1, even if they win majors long before), Wozniacki has a winning head-to-head record against Dementieva (4-3).

Those statistics are prohibitively positive for Wozniacki. Yet somehow if I ask myself, Will Wozniacki have a better career than Dementieva?, I find myself balking at making what would be the obvious reply, and why that's so is a question that's more easily answered than the original one.

Dementieva had the misfortune to be a contemporary of Venus and Serena Williams. She played Serena surprisingly close, finishing 5-7 (and who can forget that epic Wimbledon win by Serena, 8-6 in the third, in last year's semis?), but had more trouble with Venus (3-9). Dementieva played Martina Hingis well seven times (3-4), but she was generally crushed by Lindsay Davenport (5-11). Against other Grand Slam champs or No. 1 players, Dementieva was 3-7 against Jelena Jankovic, 4-2 versus Ana Ivanovic, and 6-5 against Dinara Safina. Dementieva was hammered 11-3 by Kim Clijsters and even more savaged by Justine Henin, 11-2. She struggled against Svetlana Kuzentsova (4-7) but fared slightly better against Mauresmo, going 6-10.

By my unreliable math, Dementieva was 44-74 against the best players of two generations. Just for kicks, I checked to see if she'd ever played Steffi Graf, and came up blank. I don't have the patience to add up all the Grand Slam titles accounted for by the women represented in this head-to-head, but suffice it to say that it's mildy surprising that a woman who has a better than .500 record against the cream of the crop didn't hit paydirt on at least one occasion at a major.

Wozniacki is 0-2 against Serena Williams, and 0-4 against Serena's sister Venus. She won the only match she played against Mauresmo, lost her only match with Kim Clijsters (whom she'll face today) as well as her one encounter with Henin. She's 1-2 vs. Ivanovic and 0-4 vs. Jankovic. Davenport won the only time she played Wozniacki, and Hingis crushed her twice. Safina won her only match against Wozniacki. Wozniacki is 3-2 against Kuznetsova. All told, by my count, she's 5-19 against the best players she's faced, and two of those players (Jankovic and Safina) have, like Wozniacki, failed thus far to win a major.

106307504 Five of 24 is a far cry from 44-74, but it's also true that Wozniacki is at the very beginning of her career; I doubt that Dementieva's winning percentage was much higher against the best players at a comparable age. But the critical detail is that Dementieva was nowhere near the No. 1 ranking when she was 20 (she finished 2001 ranked 15th, and actually fell back four places the following year). So what we have in Wozniacki is the apprentice in charge of the workshop, and we'll just have to wait to see how that all works out. It's absurd to challenge or attempt to discredit that No. 1 ranking. It's a fact, although we can while away hours discussing how it came to pass. But the burdens that are passed along to the player who's no. 1 are not to be dismissed.

The great advantage Wozniacki enjoys, which Dementieva never had, is that she's free to write her personal history on what looks more and more like the proverbial tabula rasa. Her path isn't exactly strewn with roadblocks. Three of her main rivals—Jankovic, Ivanovic and Safina—have one major between them. Maria Sharapova hasn't been the same since her shoulder injury of over a year ago, and the Williams sisters are banged up, their future uncertain. Clijsters returned, but has put up exactly the kind of results you can expect from a part-time employee who's secure—she appears to be working only because she needs to fill her days and the money, which after all, is pretty darned good. Henin has retreated to lick the wounds inflicted during her brief return to the fray. Hail, even Kuznetsova's future is clouded, although I imagine Wozniacki wouldn't mind battling her, given how Sveta has provided Caro with more than 50 percent of her wins over top players.

Dementieva is a superior athlete to Wozniacki, but then tennis isn't a game ruled by athleticism, even if it's the value-added element that tends to lift great champions above merely good ones. That raises an interesting point: Was Dementieva a better "athlete" than "tennis player?" And if so, does it mean that Wozniacki, who's clearly more tennis player than athlete, ought to fare better in the long term?

Wozniacki hasn't exactly lit it up at the majors (the U.S. Open excepted), but she's demonstrated a great deal of consistency—more than was ever shown by Dementieva. In tennis, winning begets winning; it's a simple as that. And Dementieva's failure to win a major is less of a comment on her athletic abilities than on some flawed component of her make-up as a tennis player—a shortcoming she was able to overcome on only a few occasions, like the Beijing Olympics, or in that Fed Cup final against France. Call it choking, call it falling prey to a bad day on an important day, or call it the quality of competition—it amounts to the same thing: An inability to raise her game and tighten down the mental screws when it most counted. The failure of a habitual consistency.

So there is Wozniacki's position in a nutshell. The WTA is there for the taking, and Wozniacki has shown signs of being the kind of player who can put the hammer down on her rivals, week-in, week-out. But she has yet to prove herself by the most reliable measure of all, winning the biggest of titles. The opportunity for her is enormous, partly because at the moment there is a surprising lack of potential resistance. And until we see a player whose combination of desire, dedication, fitness and talent exceeds that of Wozniacki's present rivals, it's her game to lose.


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Posted by Master Ace 11/01/2010 at 02:57 PM

Pete has posted today's thread and WTA fans will be interested.

Posted by Aussiemarg Madame President,Dear Wayne Has Only Five More Days In Jail.Vamos Wayne 11/01/2010 at 03:00 PM

Master Ace Thanks for the explanation in regards to Kim for next year

It will be interesting to see if Kim can win the AO a hard court slam she has yet to win.

Posted by Lynne (Rafalite) 11/01/2010 at 03:02 PM

Hi, everyone !

Congrats to Rogers fans. Commies to Dolgo fans, is that a new nickname he has ?

To the one and only Aussiemarg : I see I've been pre-empted from singing Happy birthday to you so I'll sing this :

If I had words to make a day for you,
I'd sing you a morning golden and true,
I would make this day last for all time,
then fill the night deep in moonshine. (or, if you prefer, chanelshine.)

Wishing you a wonderful and happy birthday, Marg !

Posted by GC20 11/01/2010 at 03:02 PM

AB - Perhaps ADog had no game plan today on an fast indoor court against a great server but I remember watching him play a very smart match against Nadal where he just attacked Nadal's backhand over and over and over until he got the short ball to wallop inside out. ADog ended up losing but I came away impressed.

Posted by Aussiemarg Madame President,Dear Wayne Has Only Five More Days In Jail.Vamos Wayne 11/01/2010 at 03:04 PM

Lynne

Thank you and a great song and I love the words escpecially the Chanel ones

Posted by sisu 11/01/2010 at 03:05 PM

So sorry for Dolgopolov; hope it’s OK quickly. Good fast (48 min.) match. Fun hitting and happy to see Roger in good form.

With apologies to Arun ;), I kind of like AB’s tag of “Gulbis casual” for Dolgopolov. I think it’s a good expression for how the guy acts on court. But I hope you’re wrong about this AB - “I think he'll end up being a Nishikori Gulbis Blake player.” I want to believe he’ll mature and his game will grow. I can dream can’t I? ;)) I like the kid.

Not great Sherlock, was supposed to be away this week and my health did not cooperate. ;(( But I have tennis and, if my computer cooperates, TW to read. So all is right with my world I guess.

Off the computer for awhile. Have a good day all!

Posted by Aussiemarg Madame President,Dear Wayne Has Only Five More Days In Jail.Vamos Wayne 11/01/2010 at 03:07 PM

I find Dolly has to find balance more in his shots he does tend at times to over play them

Posted by Arun 11/01/2010 at 03:16 PM

sisu: I was kidding. :)
"I want to believe he’ll mature and his game will grow."
+1.

Posted by carnap Not-for-Prophet 11/01/2010 at 03:19 PM

Happy B-Day AM! (uploading Chanel party hat to you)

Posted by carnap Not-for-Prophet 11/01/2010 at 03:20 PM

I've baked you a giant haggis cupcake with "Happy B-Day ChanelMarg" on it. Enjoy!

Posted by Aussiemarg Madame President,Dear Wayne Has Only Five More Days In Jail.Vamos Wayne 11/01/2010 at 03:22 PM

carnap A Chanel Cup Cake?

*faints*

I think you could be on to something there

Many thanks.

Posted by AB 11/01/2010 at 03:32 PM

I would like the kid to become more than a flash in the pan, but his apparent calm demeanor is belied by his impatient overplaying to end points quickly.

Does he have another speed or can he fold a higher percentage game into his current mode? Big unknown.

Also, he has a pretty serious medical condition that he's had to work around and it doesn't seem to be something that will get better with time.

So, yah, I would enjoy seeing him gain more consistency and rise higher int he rankings, but it's a big ask given his type of game.

Posted by sisu 11/01/2010 at 03:57 PM

AB, I'm hoping impatience = youth and it will change but who knows. I don't know about his medical condition (although now that you mention it, I remember someone said something a while ago), but I'm saddened to hear it could considerably affect his potential in the sport. Thanks for your thoughts AB, really appreciated. ;))

Arun, so glad! ;))

Posted by Fern 11/01/2010 at 04:00 PM

Congrats to Fed fans (includes self!) and commis to Dolgo fans. Pleased that Fed is playing well and hope Dolgo is not badly hurt and recovers quickly ... I watched Dolgo against Rafa earlier this year and he was impressive, has an entertaining game. Maybe Dolgo will become my favourite when Fed eventually calls time .:)

AM, Happy Birthday! ... and Good luck for the Melbourne Cup :)

Posted by Aussiemarg Madame President,Dear Wayne Has Only Five More Days In Jail.Vamos Wayne 11/01/2010 at 04:05 PM

Fern Thank you and I cant wait for the Melbourne Cup which is run around 3.00pm our time here.Only 8 hours to go lol!

Posted by gliciouss 11/01/2010 at 04:08 PM

while i am sure there have been matches that have been on the racquet of caro...i have never watched a match that was on her racquet...i have watched about 7 mathces of hers this year...

Posted by SlamFan 11/02/2010 at 02:47 AM

Bodo - How can you omit Maria Sharapova from that list of great players??
She has a 9-3 head-to-head against Dementieva. She is a former number one who won 22 singles tournaments, including three different majors. Major oversight!

Posted by pj 11/02/2010 at 03:53 AM

bali draw ?

Posted by Master Ace 11/02/2010 at 11:17 AM

Pj,
Please look in The Slamless Ones for Bali draw as I have posted it on the current page. Also, it is out on the Bali website.

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