Caroline Wozniacki is perhaps tennis’s brightest star without a Grand Slam title. This month, if she can get past best friend Serena Williams at the U.S. Open, that could change.
Author Gregg LaGambina Photography Frederic Auerbach
Sitting in the backyard of a remodeled concrete modernist home in Santa Monica during an uncharacteristically humid afternoon in July, it is difficult not to think we (the assembled fashion-shoot team and I) are contributing to Caroline Wozniacki’s decline. After all, the Danish tennis star is neither training nor playing tennis, and our conversation isn’t going to make her backhand any more effective when the first round of the U.S. Open arrives, on the last day of August. Talking about tennis is not playing tennis, but she couldn’t appear more relaxed as she taps at her iPhone and smiles almost perpetually.
At 25, Wozniacki is celebrating her 10th year as a professional player on Tour with the Women’s Tennis Association, the same organization that ranked her the No. 1 singles player for 67 weeks from 2010 to 2012. She has won 23 titles, yet the Australian Open, French Open, Wimbledon and the fast-arriving U.S. Open continue to elude her. In other words, she has not won a Grand Slam tournament. This fact does not appear to discourage or alarm her.
“When you’re playing, I don’t think you’ll ever be satisfied,” she says, when this lack of a Grand Slam title is gently broached. “If you are, then you’re not going to try to improve. As long as I’m in the game, I always want more. I always want to do better. But if I stopped tomorrow and I looked back at my career, I can be very proud of what I’ve achieved. There are very few people who have achieved anything like [I have] in tennis or in other sports. Tobe the best in the world at something is definitely special.”
Athletes are unusual creatures. They are not like the rest of us. Just sitting here in black leggings and a royal blue warmup jacket, Wozniacki emanates potential. Or it’s my imagination. Science tells us, via Newton, that a body at rest will stay at rest until acted upon by another force. Seeing Wozniacki at rest, you sense that her body is not quite where it belongs. She is a force that acts or rests at her will—Newton be damned.
She does not fidget—she reclines and barely moves during the course of our conversation—but like a cannonball without a cannon nearby, you get the idea that she is meant for something else, that an essential piece is missing. Activity, velocity, response and reflex—these are the things that her body must do. Yet, we sit. Today, we volley words back and forth, like pals on a patio in summer. The inactivity does not concern her.
“I’m always on the run, so sometimes I just like to do nothing,” she says, laughing at a question I toss her way about those particular days when she might look with disgust at a tennis racquet leaning against a wall in the corner of a room. “I like to lay in bed all day. Those are some of the best days ever. And I love to bake.”
Earlier in the afternoon, dressed in a white Rhea Costa jumpsuit with blue Versace heels, her blond hair falling across her shoulders in carefully styled waves, Wozniacki nearly floated across the living room floor, beaming at her own transformation. This vision couldn’t be any further from the woman whose fierce backhand and aggressive defensive play often leads to scraped-up and bloodied knees as she scrambles after unreachable return shots that she somehow manages to return anyway.
But the world at large is not unaware of her beauty. She has posed for the Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue, and the advertisements for her own underwear line are the first images to come up in most web searches for “Caroline Wozniacki.” With this in mind, our conversation turns to the inequity between men and women in professional sports.
After Wimbledon, Wozniacki made headlines with comments about the comparative lack of women’s matches held at the higher profile Centre Court, where the men’s matches dominate. Recently, her close friend Serena Williams has had to fend off accusations that her success is a direct result of having “masculine” features. This is something that Wozniacki rejects, while skillfully reframing the question to talk about the advances women’s tennis has made. Looking good, she argues, is something for her and her contemporaries to celebrate, not to shy away from.
“I think every woman wants to look good,” she says about Williams. “It doesn’t matter if it’s on the tennis court or off the tennis court. We always have nice dresses on and new designs all the time to enhance our femininity. I think we’re very feminine. Serena has an amazing body. She has the curves, and she’s rocking it. A lot of people would be jealous of her body, because it’s amazing. Athletes in general have good bodies. We are toned, we’re strong, and it’s all about embracing that.
“I think women’s tennis is the biggest women’s sport in the world,” she continues, addressing (and maybe adjusting) her comments about Wimbledon’s court scheduling. “We are very lucky. We get a lot of exposure. We have some great characters in the game, and we get a lot of attention and equal prize money as the men in the Grand Slams, and all of that is awesome. We’ve been fighting so hard for that for so many years—that we’re finally there is so great. In other sports, the men get much more attention than the women. That’s just the way it is. They also earn much more money. But in tennis, we’re doing really well. We’ve fought really hard to get equality in the game.”
The more important issue becomes unavoidable, and a delicate way to ask it eludes me. Wozniacki is six weeks from playing in the biggest tennis tournament in the United States, one that she admits is her favorite of all the Grand Slams.
“I love the U.S. Open,” she says. “I love the atmosphere. In general, all the Slams have amazing atmosphere. Those are the fun tournaments to play. But I love the U.S. Open night sessions. There are 23,000 people screaming. It’s just awesome.”
But she’s never won it. Not any of the Slams. At 25, she has time, but when your best friend (Williams) is often touted as the greatest player ever and is in pursuit of not only her 22nd Grand Slam title, but to be the first player since Steffi Graf (back in 1988) to win all four in a single year, Wozniacki must feel some pressure.
“Of course you want to win it, no doubt,” she admits without pause. “I’ve beaten all the players on the Tour. It’s all about playing well for two weeks straight [at the U.S. Open]. It doesn’t matter if it’s Serena on the other side or somebody else. I think about myself out there. I want to be the best. I try to beat the other person no matter who it is. Obviously, Serena’s a great competitor. She’s an amazing athlete, and she’s achieved so much in her career that it’s unbelievable. You know that every time you play her it’s going to be tough. I just try to go into it as if it’s any other match. It doesn’t matter that we’re friends. On the court we do fist pumps and scream ‘Come on!’ because we are both competitors. After we get off the court, we’re friends again. But when we’re on the court, winning is all that matters.”
Wozniacki has won enough tournaments with large payouts and signed endorsement deals with everyone from Godiva to Rolex to make her one of the highest-paid female athletes in the world, year after year. She splits her off-season between her homes in Monaco and Miami and her apartment in New York City. Yet there is always that phrase “despite winning any major tournaments” lingering somewhere in the pieces written about her wealth and fame. When pressed about remorse or any singular moment or missed shot that haunts her, she laughs it off and, in her answer, reveals exactly why she can return to the court time and time again in full belief that she can and will win.
“Those moments I try to forget as soon as possible—and now I can’t even think of one!” she exclaims with a laugh. Obviously there are matches when you’ve lost, and you’ve thought, ‘I should have done something different. I’m not going to do that again.’ There will always be things like that, but that’s sports. You live and learn, and sometimes you’re behind and should have lost the match a long time ago, and all of a sudden you turn it around and manage to win. Or, it’s the other way around. As long as you try your best, that’s all you can ask of yourself. I don’t believe in regrets.”