April 15, 2010 -- You've heard the adage that winning isn't everything. A friendly coach probably comforted you with those words after a disappointing loss in high school softball, basketball or tennis -- if you were lucky to have courts on the property. But for these women banging the ball around the green clay courts at the Family Circle Cup, they don't want comfort. They don't want to come close, like almost win. To them... winning is everything.
Especially for Caroline Wozniacki, the #1 seed. The nineteen-year-old smiled to fans, to the media, to the chair umpire Lynn Welch. But once she stepped behind the baseline with her designer Stella McCartney Adidas dress and her Adidas visor pulled low, she was anything but nice.
"I knew that from the beginning I was going to have more energy or more power," Wozniacki started. "So, I was trying to keep the balls short, try to stay inside the court because I knew that once the balls got heavier, we'll have longer rallies."
Across the net was thirty-one-year old Patty Schnyder, the #16 seed. She was appearing in her fourteenth consecutive Family Circle Cup. Patty... the elder statesman, if you will, of the court. She lost to Wozniacki last week at Ponte Verde Beach. The Dane went on to take the title.
Patty may have wanted revenge from that match loss, but she wasn't concerned to any extent, as was Wozniacki, about her ranking. Would she move up or down the WTA Sony Ericsson scale come Monday? Patty is more concerned about where to retire. She loves Australia, the sea, and the water sports that help her relax.
"It's not easy to keep it up and to have the fitness level that I have," Schnyder said, after today's loss: 62 75. "It's a bit sad for my game because I don't have that intensity here, so I can't really score those wins."
Wozniacki is at the opposite end of her career. She turned pro five years ago and has risen in the ranks at a rate few experience. She broke into the top ten last year for the first time. Currently she is #2 in the world, which she reached March 22. Wins and losses are of primary consideration, along with a load of additional factors: her long-term health, without which she would be sorry out of luck.
Schnyder hit two aces -- one at 115 MPH -- against Wozniacki deep in the second set, threatening to spoil the teen's afternoon. She broke Caroline three times in the set, too, and was a couple strokes away from extending the match.
"I didn't notice it was 115," Wozniacki said. "I just noticed that she made two aces in the important points when I had the advantage. I wasn't too happy about that. She hit the lines twice."
Piotr Wozniacki, Caroline's father and coach, was frustrated. He yelled encouragement at his daughter as tension rose. Neither one wanted a third set.
"I felt really good the way I broke her," Schnyder began. "But then in twenty seconds it was 0-30 twice. It's frustrating. I was trying to get back those rallies and be aggressive. Like I said, it's the intensity that I was missing and mentally I made too many mistakes."
So Schnyder walked away, although she said she would have liked to say. And, Wozniacki goes on to play veteran and 2006 Family Circle Cup champion Nadia Petrova who turned pro eleven years ago. She's 28. But Nadia, unlike Schnyder, is intensely into her career.
She's ranked #18, made it to the quarterfinals at the Australian Open in January, won the doubles title here in 2009 and has hooked up this week with Liezel Huber for doubles. Huber is the number one doubles player in the world.
"I have to be very focused and very patient," Petrova said, about playing Wozniacki tomorrow. "She's a very good defender. It's going to be a lot of long rallies. Patience is, I think, the number one key, and hopefully my serve is going to work well so I can get some free points."
Petrova hit seven aces today in her victory over Aleksandra Wozniak 62 64. And, you would think, that with age comes a slight edge in the patience department. Petrova, though, can be a hot head. We shall see.
Vera Zvonareva looks young and she is young when we don't compare her age to others on the WTA Tour. When she smiles, she appears even younger.
At 26, though, she isn't looking to burn a path to number one, but rests easy with her career. She ended in the top ten in 2008 and 2009. She did suffer a nasty spill here last April and was transported off court in a cart. Her right ankle was fractured and required surgery in December.
"I don't think about it when I'm out here," Zvonareva said. "It's a great tournament. We love it, everyone taking such good care of us. But, I still wear the brace as a protection and I still need it. But I don't think about it on court."
But before she injured her ankle, she was number five in the world.
"I'm already mature and experienced player and have 10 titles in my career," Zvonareva said. "I've been out there in the top ten. For me, ranking doesn't matter that much anymore. When you're young and want to achieve you want to get into top five, yeah, I think you go for it."
For Zvonareva, as for many players, to stay healthy, try her best, and continue to improve on court are the priorities.
"I know if I do that then I can beat anyone out there," Zvonareva added.
She defeated Alona Bondarenko this morning in fifty-nine minutes 62 61. She plays Melanie Oudin in the quarterfinals tomorrow.
Oudin at 19 is in the same corner as Wozniacki, when it comes to improvement in the rankings. Although the Dane has her beat, right now, Oudin showed signs today, and throughout last year her first full year as a pro, that make many believe she is destined for stardom -- that is, if she can improve her serve, the weakest part of her game. Her footwork, intensity, and refusal to give up, are marks of champions.
Oudin defeated seventeen-year-old Christina McHale 64 60, when teenage tennis came to center court mid-afternoon. McHale, ranked #192, had qualified for this tournament and benefited from Victoria Azarenka's retirement yesterday when her pulled hamstring flared.
McHale served harder than Oudin. She could compete off the ground until she went for winners, too. They usually found the net or went out. Oudin knew their history from juniors and had never lost to McHale. But that didn't stop her from blowing a break lead in the first set when her mind wandered.
"I started off really, really well, go up thirty-love and then got a little bit tight," Oudin said. "I started thinking too much about who I was playing, like I was playing a girl younger than me, another American that I'm supposed to beat. I was thinking too much about that. Then I started to double fault and make too many errors and letting that get in my mind."
Melanie called her coach. After that discussion, Oudin didn't lose another game before shaking hands with McHale at the net.
Any player of any age can lose their way in a match. A bad call, especially on clay where no Hawkeye technology is used, wind/sun, poor technique -- whatever, players are all vulnerable. If the interruption digs in, precious concentration vanishes. Oudin is young, but at least she asked for help and turned herself and the match around. That speaks of maturity.
We'll see if the teenager can maintain that good sense when she faces Vera Zvonareva tomorrow evening in the marquee match.