Sunshine takes on a new shape this season.
Caroline Wozniacki, nicknamed “Sunshine” for her perpetually positive disposition on court, is coming off the finest year of her career in which she won a WTA tour-best six titles and became the first Danish player to attain the World No. 1 ranking.
Now the 20-year-old will try to win her first career Grand Slam title without an ally that accompanied her on court for every match last season.
Wozniacki has left Babolat, the racquet brand she’s played with for her entire career, and is now playing with a Yonex. Wozniacki wielded the new Yonex VCore 100S in a New Year’s Day exhibition match against Kim Clijsters in Thailand:
The distinctive rectangular Yonex frame is a different head shape from the rounded Babolat Aero Pro Drive Wozniacki has used throughout her career, which means the switch is not merely cosmetic. The red and white colors recall the national colors of Denmark, Poland (her parents are Polish) and Japan, home to Yonex.
Wozniacki is the second current or former World No. 1 to recently switch frames. Maria Sharapova, a long-time Prince player, signed with Head. However, Sharapova played with a blacked-out Head frame since last May, whereas Wozniacki has not yet played a tournament with her new Yonex.
How will Wozniacki adapt to the new stick?
“Step one is adjusting to the different head shape,” TENNIS racquet adviser Bruce Levine says. “She’s going from round to rectangular, but the fact she’s a control player could make the adjustment somewhat easier. Historically, they will take what a player has been playing with and try to replicate that. So they will likely customize the handle to match her Babolat so it feels familiar in her hand. I’m sure the weight, the flex, the balance point, the power level and beam width will be very close to the Babolat she used.”
Some players say that indefinable quality commonly called “feel” is sometimes far more elusive to recreate.
“I never thought I was picky about racquets until I went through this situation where I’m trying to find one that’s just like mine and no one has been able to do that,” said James Blake, who played with the Dunlop 300G for years, briefly switched to Prince, bounced back to Dunlop and experimented with Wilson. “They can make it the same weight, same balance, same mold and the same everything. But if it doesn’t feel the same (the) only possibility in my head is that it’s the material.”
The 2009 U.S. Open finalist’s decision to drop the racquet that helped her reach the top of tennis has surprised some racquet experts.
“I’m shocked,” says Woody Schneider, who owns Grand Central Racquet in New York City and was named 2010 Pro Retailer of the Year by Racquet Sport Industry. “Almost every time these players switch just for the sake of money it’s a mistake. She reached number one in the world with that [Babolat] frame; why in the world would you switch?”
Wozniacki is the highest-ranked player to change racquet manufacturers since Novak Djokovic made the move from Wilson to Head prior to the start of the 2009 season, when he was ranked No. 3. Djokovic had early struggles after he switched sticks, and some suggest Wozniacki is taking a significant risk in taking on a new racquet.
“A great player is a great player no matter what brand they use,” Schneider says. “However, I do think psychologically it messes with their heads. Remember when Djokovic switched to Head and the first few matches whenever something went wrong he was looking at the racquet as if it’s the racquet’s fault? Do you remember all the complaining Djokovic was doing then? It was terrible. I don’t feel bad for the players. I feel bad for the company that just spent all that money to sign them.”
Wozniacki earned about $9 million in 2010, including nearly $6 million in endorsements and appearance fees, according to SportsBusiness Journal, making it one of the most lucrative seasons in history for a player who has never won a major title.
Though former world No. 1 Lleyton Hewitt, David Nalbandian, Mario Ancic and Juan Monaco are all Yonex players, gear heads often refer to Yonex as the “chick stick” because the brand boasts Martina Navratilova, Monica Seles, Arantxa Sanchez-Vicario, Martina Hingis and Anna Kournikova among its alumni. Yonex has a history of signing some of tennis’ most photogenic players. Ana Ivanovic, Elena Dementieva, Maria Kirilenko and Kimiko Date Krumm are all Yonex players, and the addition of Wozniacki solidifies its status as the frame for the game’s glamour girls.
“I think there is a concern that they could be perceived as ‘the chick stick brand,’” Levine says. “They do have Hewitt and Nalbandian and they had Richard Krajicek and Marcelo Rios, but if I were doing their marketing, I would go out and try to find a male player popular in Asia, as they had with Paradorn Srichaphan. Yonex is huge in Asia, but they’re a minor player in the U.S. market right now.”
Of course, if Wozniacki wins a Grand Slam title playing with Yonex, it would be another major boost for the brand that signed Ivanovic away from Wilson, and was rewarded shortly after when she won the 2008 French Open.
Given the recent retirement of Dementieva, and the fact the 40-year-old Date Krumm announced 2011 may be her last season, Yonex likely views Wozniacki as a wise investment in that she has the potential to give the brand a Top 10 presence for years to come.
“I would almost be willing to bet they’re paying Wozniacki what they were paying Dementieva and Date Krumm (combined),” Levine says. “She’s number one, she’s well-spoken, she’s a very pretty girl, she’s got a fan following all over the world, and Wozniacki strikes me as the type of player who will be visible and active in tennis even after her playing days are done. You can see her as a commentator or a brand ambassador down the road so in that sense she can give Yonex both immediate and long-term value.”
Still, if Wozniacki does not master a major in the coming years, is her presence as a Top 10 player and personable brand ambassador enough to nudge the needle in sales?
“Honestly, in my experience there are only two players who influence racquet sales: Roger and Rafa,” says Schneider. “After that, I don’t see any other player impacting sales all that much. I don’t see people walking into my store saying ‘Let me have the Wozniacki racquet.’ I just don’t see any players aside from Rafa and Roger selling racquets.”