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March 9 - 22, 2020

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Simona Halep waving to crowd

Top Women Carry ‘Huge Backpack’: The Battle for No. 1

by Melissa Isaacson

Caroline Wozniacki looked a touch uneasy even handling the question.

The subject was the No. 1 ranking, once considered the pinnacle of tennis but recently treated with all the appeal of a Palatka timeshare.

For Wozniacki, one of six women who have taken over the top ranking in the last year only to give it up before they could get used to the idea, the dream was much more exciting than the burdensome reality.

“I don’t think you really understand until you’re there,” Wozniacki told last week. “And you don’t really understand until you lose what you’ve had. And you don’t really understand all of it until you take a breath and look back and you’re like, ‘Oh my God, that was incredible.’ That’s when you start thinking, ‘Why didn’t I enjoy it more? Why was I so nervous about this?’”

Chris Evert suggested to the New York Times last October that Serena Williams’ 14 months off suddenly increased the pressure to pursue and then retain the top ranking. Where once the rest of the field were underdogs, Evert said that in 2017, “Somebody had to step it up, and really in my mind, nobody did. Period.”

Martina Navratilova, who spent 332 weeks at No. 1, second only to Steffi Graf’s 377, agreed with the premise.

“It seems to be that for so many of them, the pressure makes them play worse, not better,” Navratilova told this week. “For Serena, she plays better under pressure. Most of them don’t play well. And that’s why she’s winning those big matches and they’re not.”

Kerber celebrating win

As a result, the top of the WTA rankings last year became a Who’s Who of women’s tennis. A pregnant and inactive Williams held it for seven weeks after she won the Australian Open. Angelique Kerber took over on March 20, six months after she became No. 1 for the first time, and kept it for five weeks when — thanks to a ratings points quirk — Williams, still not playing and having publicly announced her pregnancy a week earlier, took it back.

Karolina Pliskova touching racquet

Kerber got it back on May 15, but lost it nine weeks later to Karolina Pliskova after her third WTA title of the year. In five tournaments during that span, Kerber was eliminated in the second round three times, in the third round once, and once made a final.

Garbiñe Muguruza holding up index finger

Next it was Wimbledon champion Garbine Muguruza’s turn, jumping two spots from No. 3 to No. 1 on Sept. 11 after getting to the fourth round of the US Open for the first time. Pliskova fell to No. 4 after a quarterfinal loss at the Open.

The day after winning Wimbledon, Muguruza seemed already to be trying to relieve the pressure of a future top ranking. She said her goal was to enter every Grand Slam tournament as a threat to win and said the top ranking was “temporary.”

Like Wozniacki, she admitted that no one can fully prepare a person for how the top spot will.

“When you’re little and you dream about it — ‘I want to be No. 1 in the world’ — you just think about tennis,” Muguruza said. “You don’t think about the pressure you’re going to feel after or the expectation, that if you lose, it’s such a big deal and if you win, it’s normal. All these things when you’re little, you never think about it until you’re there. Then you’re like, ‘Oh, nobody told me that I have this huge backpack I’m holding here with a lot things.’”

Muguruza paused to consider.

“At the same time, I wish I’m always in that situation,” she said. “It’s just tricky.”

Muguruza’s reign at the top lasted exactly four weeks. Then it was Simona Halep’s first turn at the top, qualifying the fourth straight year for the WTA Finals and joining Pliskova as two of seven women’s players, including Wozniacki, to achieve the No. 1 ranking without a Grand Slam title.

Evert immediately tweeted that a “high level of consistency over 12 months [is] more impressive than a Slam with poor or average results rest of the year…”

But it bothered Halep to the point where she sought the help of a sports psychologist, who taught her to be “kind” to herself, a lesson she reminds herself of often.

“I have learned I’m able to do great things,” said Halep, whose quarterfinal victory on Wednesday in Indian Wells means she will remain at No. 1 for now. “Of course, it was one of my dreams to get to No. 1, but I never believed 100 percent that I’m able to do that and after I did it, it was a relief and it gave me power that I can go ahead and do better things. So I’m thinking now that everything is open and I’m able to do anything.”

Looking back this week on winning the 2018 Australian Open and re-claiming the No. 1 spot for the first time in six years, Wozniacki, who relinquished the position to Halep four weeks later, said it felt different this time. Better.

“There’s just a lot of things,” she said. “I think this time, I’m just older, it’s been a few years. I didn’t want to go back and say ‘Why didn’t I do this?’ this time around. I just kind of wanted to enjoy the whole thing.”

Caroline Wozniacki

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