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Piotr and Caroline Wozniacki: Path To Tennis Glory

By Satyajit Sadanandan

This article was written soon after the 2018 Australian Open Women’s Final. Caroline Wozniacki had won and by doing so also became the World Number 1 in Women’s Tennis. This is the story of her formative years and how her Father, Piotr, played a huge role in her career as a Smart Sports Parent.

Today – the day of the 2019 Australian Open Final – some things have changed. She is not in the Final this time and is currently World Number 3 in WTA Rankings (down from last year when she became the World No 1). But what she has achieved in her career is already beyond what most sportspersons can dream of. And the lessons one can draw from this Father-Daughter journey in Tennis will outlive any fluctuation in her performance and rankings. Here it is – for your reflection and your child’s sports aspirations.

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Did you watch the Australian Open Women’s Tennis Finals last Saturday?

For those of you who didn’t – you missed a classic !

Caroline Wozniacki won and became the new World Number One.

More importantly, it crowned a remarkable journey that is as much her father Piotr’s as it is her own. An epic story of battling the odds and turning conventional wisdom on its head repeatedly due to smart parenting choices her parents made at every difficult juncture.

When I met Caroline and Piotr in Farum (Denmark) at the e-Bok Sony Ericsson Open 2011, she was only 21-years-old. She was already the World Number One on the back of many WTA titles but minus a Grand Slam win. The first ever World Champion Danish Tennis player. The WTA tournament, where we met was the first one in Denmark – organized in her hometown Farum – a measure of her immense popularity in the country.

What struck me back then was her maturity and down to earth nature. She was patiently signing autographs long after her official obligation to do so and made sure that none of the kids went home disappointed. I also met her parents there, who were warm and lacking pretense. They were obviously very proud of her achievements but didn’t let that weigh in on their interactions with others.

Her agent shared glimpses of the path that led to her success. Made me want to know more about her formative years in tennis. I came across their interviews and also of people associated with her Tennis when she was growing up.

Piotr is an exceptional father who has stood like a rock against all sorts of continuous criticism and literally gave everything to support her tennis ambition.

Their story is worth knowing and full of insights that transcend tennis for all sports parents:

  • What are some of the early indicators of a child’s aptitude for the game?
  • Challenges that can come up for you as a sports parent?
  • The smart decisions Piotr took which went against common wisdom.
  • Tough choices he had to take as an individual and as a parent on this path.
  • His tips in hindsight to other sports parents.

This is about their journey — from the start until she reached the big league. It shows the questions that came up and the choices they made to address them. I am sure you will find it quite useful and thought-provoking as a Smart Sports Parent.

Family

Caroline has a Polish heritage with her parents (Piotr and Anna Wozniacki) having migrated to Denmark before she was born. Piotr was a professional football player and Anna played volleyball for Poland. The family move to Denmark in the mid-80s was driven by Piotr’s football career.

Patrik, her elder brother, was born in 1986 and Caroline in 1990. The family spent a lot of time on outdoor sports and the children tried swimming and football early on. In fact, Patrik was very good at football and later became a professional footballer:

“From childhood, we learned that if we started something, so it should also be 100 percent serious…. We have grown up with sports. There were sports on the television and a lot of sports activities. It was quite natural for us to walk in our parents’ footsteps. Later they asked us to choose whether it should be on a serious level or as a hobby. And neither of us was in doubt.”

Early Stage: Launch (6-8 Years)

Parental Influence. Sibling Effect

The family joined the nearby Køge Tennis Club in 1996. Piotr Wozniacki, father:

“We played (Tennis) with wife as amateurs. Caroline since childhood imitated her older brother Patrik. He played football, so she did. He got interested in tennis, she did it as well.”

Being six-years-old, Caroline was considered too young to join Patrik and was asked to do wall practice and would do so for two-three hours every day. Poitr noticed quickly that she had an incredible drive to strike the ball and that she became angry when she did not hit the ball.

Being six-years-old, Caroline was considered too young to join Patrik and was asked to do wall practice and would do so for two-three hours every day. Poitr noticed quickly that she had an incredible drive to strike the ball and that she became angry when she did not hit the ball.

Self-Drive

There are the stories of little Caroline, who kept hitting the balls, and who comes into the bedroom on a Sunday morning and shakes her father awake, because they’ve agreed to go running, and who won’t take no for an answer when he looks out of the window at the pouring rain and suggests they sleep for another hour. Piotr Wozniacki, father:

“When she was young, I thought, maybe she wants ice cream or something when she said ‘daddy daddy, get up, come and run.’ But now I see that it’s really because she’s more ambitious than I am. She’s a different person than I am….

Sometimes I look in the mirror and think ‘Hell, I need to be more active’, I need to be more professional. It isn’t enough if I tell her to hit a few backhands and hit a few forehands, because she’ll just look up and say, ‘what kind of crap is that, that’s not good enough, either we work, or we don’t.’ “

She started like the other kids her age by playing with a big foam-rubber ball on the half court. But she quickly moved on to playing with regular balls on the full court with her brother and father.

Multiple Roles: Father – Coach – Driver – Teacher

Piotr recognized her love for tennis and soon she was training with him quite often. They practiced two hours twice a week, apart from the club practice. He also drove her to other tennis clubs to train with better people:

“She was around seven, and we drove around to a lot of tennis clubs to practice and train with those who suited her best. We lived in Herfølge, and drove to Vallensbæk, Birkerød, Værløse, Farum (between 50-80 kms)….

But he didn’t anticipate that the many hours driving and waiting would turn into a full-time job:

“I hadn’t foreseen that future. The daily routine was driving Caroline and Patrik to tennis and football, do homework with them – and I don’t know how many times we ate in the car.”

Exposure to Better Practice Environment

Caroline improved a lot and began to beat older players. She also trained with boys.

At one point, Piotr turned to the club’s best male player, 20-year-old club champion Peter Buser:

“Piotr himself wasn’t very good at tennis, so he got hold of people who could play with her. Piotr asked me if I would hit with her. I was a kid of twenty, and I could hit the ball a bit harder. She was bloody good already as an 8-year-old. She hit the ball well, she hit it cleanly and hard.

There was a plan. There aren’t many girls of 8 who are set up to play against boys of 20. She was given harder match-ups to get her used to return shots that came with greater pace. There was nothing accidental about it.”

Growth Stage: Ignition (10-15 Years)

First Signs of Future Success

She began to beat senior players already as a 9-year-old. And became the U12 champion of Denmark.

Piotr Wozniacki, father: “(I realized that she could turn pro) When Caroline became a champion of Denmark to 12 y.o. winning all matches 6:0 6:0. She was nine then! I employed a coach then to teach her technique skills. Until then I was her coach but I realized that it should be changed.”

Training Regime

The amount of tennis was again increased, and the weekly schedule was systematized. Apart from coaching her, Piotr also engaged other coaches. Jan Hansen, coach to young Caroline Wozniacki:

“She improved a lot. Apart from the normal training with the club’s coaches, I spent a lot of extra hours with her. She always had talent for her two-handed backhand, while the rest of the shots needed more work.

Her whole week was planned. She was off every Sunday, and she could play with her friends. She practiced tennis and did her homework on the other days.”

By the age of 10, Wozniacki was three-time Danish champion for girls under 12.

Caroline herself described the period and years at the Køge Tennis Club like this:

“I often think back to when I was 10-11, and my dad and I drove out to the Køge Tennis Club at 10 in the evening because the courts were busy until then. I’d trained at 6 AM there, and we went out there late in the evening to train some more.”

This developed slowly into the routine she had at age 11, where she had a tennis free day on Tuesday, but otherwise played every day, often several times a day (before and after school), with interval and speed training on the side.

All in all, by this time she trained at least 20 hours a week.

Success Fueled Self-Motivation

This was a tough regime for a young girl but was driven by her own desire and not parental pressure.

Jan Hansen, her former coach: 

“She loved tennis and she was always happy and positive. She quickly got ambitious because she realized she was good. There were times it was tough for her, no doubt about it. Who wouldn’t feel it was tough while training six days a week? Sometimes her father encouraged her to train. But the vast majority of the time she just trained and loved it.”

Early Responsibility – Fast Maturity – Parental Concern

Piotr grew up in Poland (Eastern Bloc) and knew only Polish and Russian when he came to Denmark. But they had to use English when they started traveling abroad for tournaments. So it was 11-12-year-old Caroline who used her school English to help him with all the communication. Piotr recollects:

“Just think about it. Such a little girl together with adults who are talking business and management. She had to translate everything for me because I was hopeless at communicating. There were sometimes serious negotiations or other things, so it was important that she did it well, because I needed to go on and do the right things with a contract or some such.

She enjoyed it and felt very grown up, but I was nervous that I was stealing her childhood, that she would grow up too quickly. I spoke with Anna (her mother) and friends about it. I knew nothing about pedagogy and child psychology. I’d only been to a sports university so I had to research all the information because I didn’t want to hurt her. I worried a lot about that, and I’m proud about how well it went and relieved that she wasn’t hurt.”

More Success – Better Training – Bigger Ambitions

Before long, it wasn’t a question of her being the best in her age group. Caroline was way too good for that. It was a question of being the best period.

By the age of 11, she was the best tennis player in Køge.

By the age of 12, Caroline reached the quarterfinals (top 8) of the Danish senior championships. There are stories of older players having quit tennis in frustration after getting beaten by her. She also began playing international junior tournaments against Europe’s best under 18’s. She beat them too.

The family moved to Farum (~75 kms) to be closer to the Danish Tennis Association’s (DTA) Elite Centre, which had better facilities and better players. She now trained 30 hours a week.

She became Danish champion at 14, and declared in an interview that her goal was: “to become number one, the world’s best.

Multiple Roles: Father – Manager – Agent

Caroline has never had to worry about reserving airline tickets or practice courts — a big challenge for juniors everywhere. Piotr always took care of these practical matters.

Getting sponsors at younger ages is also tough and the travel costs quickly add up. Most middle-class families can’t afford it. So DTA funds much of the training and tournament participation costs for the young players in their Elite Center. But this means that one needs to follow their guideline.

It was essential for Caroline to keep training harder and play more matches in order to improve. But this was not accepted easily by some of the decision makers given her young age.

Piotr Wozniacki, father:

“But there were problems with being allowed to do physical training and with traveling. They kept saying, ‘we need to wait a bit. She’s too young.’

So I made the decision that I had to travel with her, because I couldn’t wait for them while they considered their decisions. We traveled to the big junior tournament in Osaka and won. Then won a series of tournaments.

She was so young, yet she could still compete at that level, so I thought: ‘We need to do something extra.’

We got a sponsor deal with Nordea, Europæiske, Sony Ericson and many other small firms we drove around to. My business and sports friends help a lot, and so did Farum Tennis Club.

It was work eight hours a day with practice, travel planning, physical training and doing marketing by driving around and telling people, ‘this little girl will become a top player’.”

The tournament she won in Osaka was one of the world’s biggest tournaments, the World Super Junior Tennis Championships. This got her noticed by organizers of WTA tournaments, where the top ranked players play. Those tournaments like to present upcoming stars and give them a chance to prove themselves against the established ones, maybe even be the breakthrough tournament.

Success: Propulsion (15-17+ Years)

And that’s how Caroline Wozniacki, just 15-years and unranked, got wild cards to WTA tournaments. And she was able to bypass the long circuitous route through Junior and Future tournaments that most young players have to go through. The WTA tournaments also have 20 times the money and 10 times as many ranking points to be won than the Futures tournaments.

Caroline was one of the very few players who could skip the junior to WTA route and go directly into the big tournaments. This had two important benefits for her: game improvement (better opponents) and more income (prize money and sponsors) — leading to even faster progress.

And in spite of all the tennis related demands, she continued her academic courses. It could not have been easy to be traveling for over 6 months a year and finding time and motivation to study given the intense training sessions. But she did and appeared for her final test on the day she traveled to play for the first time at Wimbledon in 2006.

Another Move – Bigger Sacrifice

Piotr took a key decision for his daughter’s next leap in tennis based on the fact that many top ATP and WTA players live in Monaco and for that reason some of the top trainers too. Piotr recalled:

The situation was such in Denmark that there really weren’t any coaches with tour experience we could travel with. We trained with people in Denmark, but I was beginning to focus internationally. When she turned 16, we moved to Monaco, and I began to get help from people on the WTA Tour.

But it also involved a painful choice for him:

I think I would have helped Patrik more (if Caroline were not into tennis as much). He was a pretty good footballer but needed some support and help from me. I made the choice then when Caroline was producing promising results. That meant that I had to be closer to one of my children than the other. It was tough.

Without a doubt, being so close to her has been a huge gift, but also meant that I would have to be away from my son.

Nothing was as I’d imagined it. Everything was new to me. Every day contained a small risk of doing something wrong, and all the while, Patrik was very alone home in Copenhagen. It wasn’t an easy choice, because we wanted the best for both of our two children.

Things turned out well eventually and the siblings have maintained a good relationship till today. Patrik followed his father in professional football and is a tennis expert on TV these days.

Caroline’s professional career also progressed at a breathtaking pace. At the end of 2006 she was ranked 230 and in four more years, at just 20, she became the World Number One.

Father – Coach

Piotr has faced an incredible amount of criticism throughout Caroline’s tennis journey as people have questioned almost all his actions and motives — from getting her to practice so much at a young age to being her manager. But the worst criticism was for being her coach.

Though Piotr was not a tennis player or coach at the beginning, he was very observant and inquisitive:

“I wasn’t a tennis coach. For the first five-six years, I was the worst tennis coach in the world, but all the talking with others on the tour has helped me.”

Jan Hansen, the coach when she was young:

“Piotr absorbed everything from the coaches she had, and his interest began to grow. He absorbed what he could use, and what he saw that was a good fit for Caroline. We talked a lot about what was best for her.”

And in spite of Caroline being the World Number One for over two years (2010-12), Piotr was still criticized by many in the tennis circuit for coaching her. They cited his coaching to be the main reason behind her lack of Grand Slam success. In the face of so much negativity, his self-belief was shaken and he stepped aside for a while but no other option proved any better and he resumed coaching her.

Piotr gave a wonderful analogy to explain his progress as a coach:

“I’ll explain it very simply: you buy a ticket for the front row in the circus. You see an elephant doing things a normal elephant doesn’t do. So you think ‘damn, how many hours has it taken to get that elephant to be so good at those things?’ We humans have the advantage that we’re more intelligent than elephants. It’s taken thousands of hours of practice for me to do the things I can do. It’s the same when you go to primary school, then gymnasium (high school), then university. How many years has it taken? Quite a few.

I’ve been on the court from when Caroline was seven to today, and I hook her up constantly with different coaches and people, and I talk to them, and I get more and more knowledgeable and better as a tennis coach. I’ve used all my energy on that education, in that circus, so it’s becoming easier for me to understand those things, and it’s getting better for Caroline because we can communicate about the same things.

Getting back to the elephant, I’m the elephant, and the trainer was Caroline. She was on the court playing, so she knew and understood those things better, and by the communication, we had every ten minutes, every day, every month, every year, that elephant started to figure those things out.”

Caroline has also been vocal about this issue:

“I think, not really for me personally, but I think it’s been tough for my father, always having to defend himself. I think it’s been a shame. I know how much he puts into it, and how much he’s helped me, he’s been my coach since the beginning and hasn’t received the credit for it. I think that’s been tough. The people closest know how much he’s given. It’s been tough seeing him sawed in half because I’ve lost a match or not done as well as some expect…”

The win at Australian Open should hopefully shut that criticism for good.

But Piotr, in hindsight, doesn’t recommend other parents to try and imitate him:

“Get a real coach, and help from the second row. DON’T be a coach – be a father or mother.

I’ve spent an amazing amount of energy, and we reached an understanding. I don’t think many others could. I’ve seen thousands of examples of the opposite because parents didn’t get the right kind of advice.

As a parent, you need to keep an eye on what’s happening, but don’t be front and center. The kid needs a father and mother to come home to.”

Lessons From The Journey

Piotr Wozniacki’s insights and experiences are very valuable for any sports parent. Among the many wonderful lessons his journey provides, the ones that are worth pondering on include:

  • Caroline’s motivation was the sole reason for all the decisions and not the family ambitions.
  • The parents were enablers of Caroline’s tennis ambition and ensured the right environment for her progress.
  • There were many challenges along the way to each member of the family and they, particularly Piotr, had to make some hard choices.
  • In the absence of a proven path and role models, Piotr had to constantly innovate and find creative solutions to provide Caroline the best platform for success.
  • In doing so he repeatedly disregarded the naysayers and “tennis experts”.
  • Caroline pursued academics alongside tennis in spite of all the tennis commitments.
  • This has helped her in many ways including in the game and commercially.

Piotr literally went all in, as did the entire family – and that made all the difference to Caroline.

Key Takeaways

  • Keep your child’s passion and ambition for the game center to your decisions.
  • Every journey is different – traditional approach may not always be optimal.
  • Unwavering focus, hard choices and total commitment are needed to succeed.
References

“Én bold ad gangen – Wozniacki, US Open 2009” Anders Haahr Rasmussen; Translation: @markalannixon

https://jyllands-posten.dk/protected/premium/sport/ECE9261914/det-var-en-pige-der-blev-traenet-efter-et-eller-andet-maal-helt-fra-starten/     https://tennistranslations.wordpress.com/2017/01/ Translation: @markalannixon 

http://manixdk.blogspot.co.uk/2012/12/caroline-wozniackis-futureless-road-to.html

http://www.tennisforum.com/855-pole-position/384737-interview-piotr-wozniacki.html

http://manixdk.blogspot.co.uk/2012/12/tennis-fathers-piotr-and-caroline_27.html

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eSukGF5AHE0

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=i8cqcdsd27A

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MCFO1-eyjPY

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=g3ILlKPohwc

Extra Bladet December 23, 2017, sports section pages 8-9. Author: @johasger

https://tennistranslations.wordpress.com/2018/01/01/piotr-wozniacki-interviewed-by-johasger-my-son-paid-a-price-when-we-concentrated-on-caroline-on-the-tough-choices-made-and-advice-to-parents-dont-coach-your-kids/

http://www.tennis.com/pro-game/2011/07/piotr-wozniacki-lashes-out-at-critics/30785/

https://www.thenational.ae/caroline-wozniacki-must-sever-family-ties-to-progress-1.572159

https://ekstrabladet.dk/sport/anden_sport/tennis/stolt-piotr-det-her-maa-stoppe-snakken/7014823

https://da.wikipedia.org/wiki/Caroline_Wozniacki#2018

Transcription of a TV interview on Danish TV3 Sport 1 on June 22, 2017

https://tennistranslations.wordpress.com/2017/06/23/her-most-wide-ranging-interview-yet-former-tennis-nr-1-caroline-wozniacki-interviewed-by-former-badminton-1-now-tv-sports-host-camilla-norgaard/

Translation of an interview in the Danish daily newspaper Politiken by Peter Pilegaard

https://tennistranslations.wordpress.com/2015/07/05/interview-with-wozniacki-wimbledon/

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