Brunch with the FT: Caroline Wozniacki

I’m waiting for Caroline Wozniacki, the number-one-ranked female tennis player in the world and the top seed at Wimbledon, and I’m slightly worried that I might not recognise her – even though I met her, briefly, the day before. She had just won the e-Boks Sony Ericsson Open. She was tall, blonde and pretty. But then again, lots of young women in the vicinity of the Café Norden in Copenhagen, where we have arranged to meet, answer this description.

It’s 11am. Wozniacki was going to meet me at 12pm, for lunch, at the posh Café Victor, but now she wants brunch instead. It strikes me, even though she’s the best tennis player in the woman’s game, that she could walk around Britain and hardly anybody would know. That’s the women’s game at the moment, though. Could anyone pick out of line-up the two women – Serbia’s Jelena Jankovic and Russia’s Dinara Safina – who were number one before the Dane? I’m looking at a tall blonde girl, wondering if it’s Wozniacki, but I think not.

Ah – here she is. Actually, there is something about her. She strides with supreme purpose. She comes up to me and shakes my hand. Up close, she has clear, unblemished skin and perfect white teeth. She’s wearing jeans, trainers and some kind of stretchy Lycra top. Physically, she’s pretty much the healthiest person I’ve ever seen.

I wonder how Wozniacki’s got this far, this quickly. A year ago she was number four. She’s only 20, and she’s never won a grand slam – though she has won almost $10m in prize money to date. She has been a losing finalist once, at the US Open. At the Australian Open, she had a reputation for being bland and dull at press conferences. She said people should ask her more interesting questions. At one press conference she interviewed herself – most bizarre. But the questions she asked and the answers she gave were as bland as ever. She was grinning all the way through. Maybe she’s just some kind of tennis machine, comfortable on court at the expense of having a life. Maybe, like the former number one Ana Ivanovic, she’ll burn brightly and fizzle out. Maybe she’ll be truly great.

Wozniacki has come alone. No entourage. She’s happy to sit outside. The Café Norden is an upscale version of the sort of place you get all over Europe – a bistro with lots of people sitting outside eating complicated sandwiches and drinking hot chocolate from tall glasses. It’s not posh. But it’s friendly and relaxed. People walking along Strøget, Copenhagen’s main pedestrianised shopping street, keep looking at Wozniacki. They nudge each other and say: “Look! It’s her!” Some people wave and call: “Good luck at Wimbledon!” She’s obviously pretty famous here.

The first thing we talk about is tennis. She loves talking about tennis. And being competitive. She loves that too. The day before, I watched her beat Lucie Safarova to take the Open title. She didn’t exactly smash her; it was 6-1, 6-4, and Safarova, the world number 32, broke her serve. “She can be really difficult,” says Wozniacki. “If you give her the chance to get into the match, she’ll take it.” But Wozniacki didn’t give her the chance. The crowd roared as she whipped the ball around. Before serving, she always did a little dance, paused to look across the net, and bounced the ball three times.

I wonder if she’ll talk about anything other than tennis. She does: she tells me she hasn’t had any breakfast. This is a day off from her complicated dietary regime, which involves eating specific things at regular intervals. She’s very careful about eating the right things. “You need to eat a lot. But you need to eat right. You need the right fuel for the body.” She’ll say this more than once. Of course, she looks fantastic.

After the match, I’d spoken to her opponent Safarova, who told me the toughest thing about Wozniacki is that you can throw pretty much anything at her and she’ll get it back. She’ll grind you down. “Yes,” says Wozniacki. “Even when my opponent hits a very good shot, I don’t just want to get it back. I want to get it back so they have difficulty. And then I can control the point.”

Wozniacki is immensely competitive. She keeps saying, “I’m a competitor”. She says she loves the hyped-up adrenaline feeling of trying to beat an opponent. As a kid, she played volleyball and football; she ran and swam. Now, she boxes and spends hours and hours in the gym, working on different muscle groups. Her Polish parents, Piotr and Anna, were both sports stars. Piotr played football in the Danish league; Anna represented Poland at volleyball. Wozniacki, who was born in Denmark, started playing tennis at the age of seven. “I was a late starter”, she says, “compared to the other girls.” She started beating her father when she was nine. A couple of years later she started beating all comers.

“There are periods,” she says, “when you feel really good. You feel the ball is bigger. The court is larger. You feel like you can’t miss. And then there are periods when you feel, ‘OK, I’m not feeling great.’ But I still need to try to find a way to win. You need to figure out what your strengths are. You need to come back to that.”

The waitress arrives. Wozniacki orders a hot chocolate. I ask for a double espresso. But there’s an odd system at Café Norden. You have to order and pay at the bar. Wozniacki says she wants what will turn out to be a huge fruit salad with melon, watermelon, strawberries, blueberries and pineapple. I trudge all the way around the side of the restaurant. There’s a queue. For about five minutes, I watch Wozniacki through the window. Sometimes I wave. It’s awkward.

At the bar, there’s a comforting array of beer taps and a serious coffee machine. I order a big fat open sandwich with ham and cheese and masses of salad. Meanwhile Wozniacki texts somebody on her phone. I wonder who it is. Could it be the footballer Nicklas Bendtner? The Danish press have been speculating that Bendtner and Wozniacki are an item; this week’s Seoghør magazine, full of celebrity gossip, has spotted the “blonde babe” having an “intim aften” – an intimate afternoon – with the Danish Arsenal striker. There’s a picture of her hugging Bendtner, wearing a black mini-dress, and another one of her playing with her long ice-blonde hair, with Bendtner looking on mischievously. The look in his eyes says “Ding-dong!” I can think of one interesting question I can ask her.

For a while, though, we talk about food. Fuelling the tennis machine. This past week, during the tournament, she’s had to be rigorous. “I’ve been eating oatmeal every day for breakfast, with raisins and bananas, for energy. Then some wholewheat pasta with chicken for lunch. Then, for dinner, either chicken and salad or steak and salad.” She likes fillet steak best. “I don’t like the fat around the steak,” she says. And: “I’m a big broccoli fan.” She never eats seafood. She’s had food poisoning twice. She was ill for a week each time. Now she won’t risk it.

In between meals she snacks on nuts. The fuelling process get more complicated on match days. She eats a small amount of pasta exactly an hour and a half before going on court, which can be difficult as she never knows how long the previous match will last. So she watches the score like a hawk, and makes her best judgment. After the match, she eats a small meal of protein, such as a plateful of chicken. That’s five meals a day plus snacks.

But today’s a day off from that. Our drinks arrive. Wozniacki’s hot chocolate is thick and dark; it comes with a couple of biscuits and a bowl of cream. She won’t touch the cream. And she’ll only have a few sips of the chocolate. She takes a tiny bite of the biscuit, puts it down and leaves it.

Left to herself, she’d talk about tennis endlessly. It seems almost rude to ask her anything else. I know what I should ask her. I should ask her if she’s sacrificed her life for a court and a racket and a yellow ball. I should ask her if reaching number one in the rankings has caused her crushing psychological problems, as it did for Andre Agassi and John McEnroe. But for a while, we talk about her training regime. Three hours on court every day. Two 90-minute sessions. In between this, a run. She runs six to eight kilometres one day for stamina, and on a treadmill the next day for speed.

The treadmill is tough, she says. “I’m a competitor. Gym work can be tough. But you just try to get though it.” She works on her abdominal muscles with a medicine ball. She works on her back and legs. She goes into the ring with an ex-boxer and punches his hands. Then she does stretching exercises. Then she has a massage. Then a shower. Then protein. Then, later, a steak. “I eat quite big portions,” she says.

Here comes the food. People walk past, smiling and pointing. They take their mobile phones out and take pictures. She is more than tolerant. But she actually lives in Monaco, for the sake of privacy. The way she describes it, it’s practically a colony of reclusive celebrities and elite athletes, like a high-class stable for the best racehorses. They are stars, but they are also prisoners. Novak Djokovic is her neighbour. She has a two-bedroom, two-bathroom apartment. Sometimes her parents stay with her.

Her fruit comes on a long plate; there’s a lot of it. But she eats carefully. She takes a tiny sip, her last, of the thick hot chocolate, which must be cold by now. My double espresso is long gone. The big fat sandwich in front of me is one of those precarious creations full of lively chunks of this and that, and oozing sauce. Maybe it was a mistake. I certainly can’t pick it up. So I hack away at it, with bits sliding around.

Wozniacki spears a blueberry. She says she’s not big on ham or salami. She’s very, very disciplined about everything she does. With food, she takes no risks. I take a mouthful of ham, bread smeared with melted cheese, and a thicket of mayo-slick leaves, and the whole thing goes a bit wrong, so I’m left with slop all over my face and fronds hanging from my mouth.

Has she, I ask, got a boyfriend? That, she says, is something she won’t talk about. In the Danish media, she’s always being linked with people. “I think in five weeks I had six boyfriends. They said a boxer, then a ping-pong player and Nadal ... so many I can’t even keep track any more.” She doesn’t mention Nicklas Bendtner.

Wozniacki is a great football fan, though. Her team is Liverpool but she loves the way Barcelona play; she knows Liverpool’s players; she’s met a lot of Barcelona’s players too. What about Arsenal? “They have a nice style of play,” she says. And now she mentions Bendtner. “He’s nice. He’s funny.” When she’s saying this, she’s grinning and laughing. But she won’t say any more.

So: being number one – is it hard to handle? Having reached the top, do you suddenly feel as if you’re on the edge of a great existential void? “For me, it’s pretty easy. Because I’m so young, and I’ve arrived where I want to be, and I know that I want to stay there as many weeks as possible. I always have goals. Every time I step into the court, I want to win the tournament.” That’s a pretty firm no, then.

And does she think she’s made sacrifices? “No,” she says. “I don’t believe in sacrifices. I believe in choices. For me, I’ve made so many choices on my way to where I am now, and I’m so happy I made the choices I did. Sometimes you’re in the situation where you need to choose between one thing and another. When I was younger: should I go to the party with my friends, and come back at four in the morning? Or should I go to bed at a reasonable time, ready to practise in the morning?” She says she didn’t always make the right choice. “But I pretty much did the right thing most of the time.”

What about Wimbledon? She says she’s fine on grass – the bounce is very similar to the indoor courts she’s just been playing on. I ask her which players she fears. “I don’t fear anybody,” she says. “If I play well it’s tough to beat me. If somebody beats you, it just means she’s too good that day.”

Wozniacki is number one – yet she hasn’t yet won a grand slam. A couple of weeks before she won in Copenhagen, she went out in the third round of the French Open. Of losing badly, she says: “Sometimes you need hard losses to really wake you up.” We talk about Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal. I tell her I love Federer. I can tell she’s a Nadal fan. She is. All that power. All that grit. She says, “Federer is a more complete player. But Nadal has the heart.”

Is she a tennis machine? She doesn’t want anything to get in the way of her tennis – maybe not even real life. But maybe she’ll win Wimbledon. Maybe we’ll come to love her. We’ll watch her approach the baseline. We’ll watch her do her little dance, and bounce the ball three times. How many grand slams will she win? “I want to win one,’ she says, “and we’ll take it from there.”

For her sake, I hope she does.

Rahul Jacob on the era of Bjorn Borg and John McEnroe – see Books page

Café Norden

Østergade 61, Copenhagen

Hot chocolate DKr45

Double espresso DKr30

Fruit salad DKr85

Ham & cheese sandwich DKr115

Total (including service) DKr275 (£32.40)

The women to watch at Wimbledon

Serena Williams, USA

Current world ranking 26

Wimbledon seeding 7

A year on the sidelines, courtesy of a lacerated foot and blood clots on the lungs, meant that last week in Eastbourne was the first time Serena Williams had wielded a racket in anger since winning Wimbledon last year. Any other player wouldn’t stand a chance at this year’s tournament with such limited match preparation. But Williams isn’t any other player. As well as oozing more confidence than a heavyweight boxer, she has the power shots to blow anyone off the court. The 13 times grand slam champion is also a bookies’ favourite, writes Dominic Bliss.

Maria Sharapova, Russia

Current world ranking 6

Wimbledon seeding 5

A solid 2011 so far, with a semi-final at Roland Garros, a runners-up trophy in Miami and a win in Rome, puts this 24-year-old Russian among the top Wimbledon contenders. After all, she won the title in 2004. Last year, however, she didn’t progress beyond the fourth round. As ever, much will hinge on her health: she pulled out of her traditional grass-court warm-up in Birmingham, citing an unspecified illness. If this doesn’t hinder her, her big shoulders and long arms give her that extra leverage on all the shots.

Vera Zvonareva, Russia

Current world ranking 3

Wimbledon seeding 2

Victory for the 26-year-old Muscovite, last year’s runner-up, depends on whether she can overcome the mental weaknesses she has suffered in the past. There’s no doubting her speed or the efficacy of her deep, flat groundstrokes. But on tennis’s grandest stages it’s also the mental game that counts. A solid season so far, with four semi-finals and one win, suggests that her mind is settled.

Li Na, China

Current world ranking 4

Wimbledon seeding 3

Triumph on the clay at Roland Garros is no guarantee of success on Wimbledon’s grass a fortnight later. However, there’s no doubting that Li Na will be buoyed by her win in the French Open. As China’s first- ever grand slam singles champion, she had nearly 120m countrymen watching her on TV. If she does well at Wimbledon, the 29-year-old can expect triple that number. Past form bodes well: last year and in 2006 she reached the quarter-finals.

Petra Kvitova, Czech Republic

Current world ranking 8

Wimbledon seeding 8

Despite being ranked only eighth in the world, this 21-year-old left-hander is fancied highly by bookies thanks to some excellent results this year (wins in Brisbane, Paris indoors and Madrid) and a semi-final showing at Wimbledon last year, where she pushed eventual champion Serena Williams to a tie-break. Still, she remains an outsider compared to the others on this list. So there’s less pressure on her – always a boon.

Dominic Bliss is senior writer for Internation Tennis Magazine

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