Piotr Wozniacki’s omnipresence in his daughter’s career is impossible to ignore. Trust me, I’ve tried. I’d prefer to talk about her game and her results and not the awkward coaching timeouts or camera pans to Piotr face-palming after his daughter hits an error. He doesn’t exactly keep a low profile.
He has acted as her primary coach throughout her career, and aside from a brief dabble here and there with alternative coaching arrangements, he has never been far from her side. She remains staunchly loyal to him, which is understandable. Piotr has guided his daughter’s career from the start and together the two ruled the tour from a rankings standpoint in 2010 and ’11. He has beaten back against the critiques of Wozniacki’s game — her unwillingness to play aggressively, her technically flawed forehand, a serve that is easily attackable by anyone with power off the ground — and for those two years, the Wozniackis could always point to the scoreboard to silence the critics. “If her game is so deficient, how come she’s leading the tour in wins and titles?” they might as well have said. They had a point.
But those days are long gone. Wozniacki has struggled since losing her No. 1 ranking to Victoria Azarenka after last year’s Australian Open. There’s no point in rehashing her well-documented loss in form here, but a year on she’s in a position of having to earn back her place among the WTA’s elite. Her losses are now met with an eye-roll and neither she nor her father can use her win-loss record as a shield.
Which brings us to Thursday’s events in Doha. After winning the first set against Mona Barthel in her third-round match, Wozniacki was serving for a 4-1 lead in the second set when Barthel looked to have saved a game point with a backhand winner. While the linesperson ruled the ball in, someone in the crowd apparently made a loud “out” call (it’s possible that the linesperson called it out and then issued an inaudible correction, but I’ll defer to the commentator). Wozniacki wanted the point replayed as a let, but the chair umpire, Julie Kjendlie, disagreed and was ready to give the point to Barthel.
That’s when Piotr inserted himself into the situation, yelling directly at Kjendlie from his seat in the stands. It’s hard to hear what was being said through all the boos and whistles, but Kjendlie eventually relented after a back and forth with Piotr and called for the point to be replayed. Wozniacki went on to win 7-6 (6), 6-3.
To put it simply, this looks horrible. Horrible for Wozniacki, horrible for her father, horrible for the umpire and horrible for the WTA. This isn’t some junior tournament off the beaten track where incidents like this are more prevalent than we’d like to think. No, this is a multimillionaire top 10 player and former No. 1 competing at a top-level tournament and having her daddy intervene to bully an umpire into letting his daughter have her way. It doesn’t matter whether the call is ultimately right or not. The act itself is appalling.
Father-daughter coaching relationships have always been a part of the WTA landscape. Three of the top five women have been coached by their fathers, Serena Williams, Maria Sharapova and Agnieszka Radwanska, but the common thread with each is the dads have ceded control to new voices. The results speak for themselves. Since Williams opened up her coaching circle to include Patrick Mouratoglou, she’s re-established her domination and is on the verge of recapturing the No. 1 ranking. Sharapova completed her career Grand Slam last year under Thomas Hogstedt. Radwanska has had the best results of her career since teaming with Tomasz Wiktorowski, playing at a level that didn’t seem possible when she was coached by her father, Robert.
If you want to expand the issue to one of a familial coach, you could add Li Na to the mix. Her results while being coached by her husband come nowhere near her results with outside coaches. She won the 2011 French Open with Michael Mortensen, and her new partnership with Carlos Rodriguez resulted in a return to the Australian Open final last month.
Wozniacki isn’t the only talented player who may need to look to outside coaching advice. Sabine Lisicki also comes to mind. The 23-year-old German, who is coached by her father, Richard, has raw talent to spare with her booming serve and forehand. There’s no reason she should be ranked outside the top 15. Yet she’s ranked No. 40 and has spent the last year underachieving and struggling with her fitness. Marion Bartoli, who famously ejected her father, Walter, from a match at Wimbledon in 2011, already ushered in a new era last week when she agreed to split with him. She’s actively pursuing Amelie Mauresmo to help her win that elusive Slam, but at 28 it’s hard not to wonder if Bartoli’s split has come too late.
But Wozniacki is still young and still has unlocked potential in her game. Her competitive instincts make her one of the toughest outs in tennis even when she’s not playing her best, and her serve and forehand can be better. While her defenders might be inclined to point out the fact that Serena and Venus Williams and Sharapova all won multiple Slams under their fathers’ tutelage, don’t forget that both Richard Williams and Yuri Sharapov were wise enough to bring in outside coaches early, whether in the form of hitting instructors like Robert Lansdorp for Sharapova, or via hitting partners who effectively served as coaches, as David Witt did for Venus and Michael Joyce for Sharapova. They were smart enough to know that they didn’t know everything and that private humility served their daughters well. There have been no signs of that level of trust with the Wozniacki camp, as its two coaching/adviser experiments, Ricardo Sanchez and Thomas Johansson, were over in a blink of an eye.
Under her father’s tutelage, Wozniacki has gone from a brace-faced kid from Odensk, Denmark, to a world No. 1 and one of the most recognizable faces in women’s tennis. That’s a a remarkable accomplishment and one the Wozniackis have every right to be proud of. But there comes a point when a player has to decide whether the status quo is sufficient or whether she wants more. All she has to do is look around at her peers to realize her current arrangement has a shelf life. She can be a top 15 player for the rest of her career under her father, no doubt. But if she wants more out of it than that, then she has to face some tough decisions.