NEW HAVEN — The only discernible wince of pain on this Friday would be on the face of tournament director Anne Worcester. She was disappointed. Understanding, but disappointed. And who in Worcester's position wouldn't be?
Caroline Wozniacki, the crown princess of the New Haven Open, had pulled out of the semifinals against Maria Kirilenko and now the post-match questions about her injury had turned to what this event meant to her and her career.
"That sounds like I'm retiring," Wozniacki said.
Technically, Wozniacki had retired. Oh, the 22-year-old Dane's career, one with considerable success and without a major victory, will march on to Flushing Meadows and the 2012 U.S. Open. Yet Wozniacki's stab at history, at becoming the first player to win five consecutive New Haven titles and only the fourth in women's tennis history to do so anywhere, had ended without a noticeable stab of pain to her right knee.
After dropping the first set, 5-7, Wozniacki called on the trainer and after a brief conversation retired. It was then I remembered what I wrote a few years ago at the Connecticut Tennis Center about this curious tennis term "retire." How it is the quicksilver of the sport. How it is as elusive as it is all-encompassing. How "retire" could mean a broken leg or a broken promise to play with more than a modicum of interest.
Held a week before the U.S. Open, New Haven will never be an event where Spartans are carried out on their shields. Pete Sampras might have given us one of tennis' epic moments as he battled through a fifth set while throwing up at the 1996 U.S. Open. Yet two years later, it was the New Haven fans who felt like barfing when Pete pulled a tank job against Leander Paes.
Heck, Svetlana Kuznetsova won the 2007 Pilot Pen after her opponents retired in the quarters, semis and finals. Before Wozniacki went on her four-year title run, in fact, players had retired in the women's final in three of five years.
"It's definitely not the way I would have liked to have finished," Wozniacki said. "You know, it's unfortunate. But these things happen."
In a four-minute interview, Wozniacki dropped 13 "you know" bombs. The real truth is we don't know. There always will be a thin line between being ultra-careful in preparation for a major and ducking a commitment to compete, and we are left to make semi-educated judgments. So here's mine:
On the all-time New Haven Tank-O-Meter, Wozniacki's retirement ranks far down there. Heck, just look at that shoulder injury that led No. 1 seed Agnieska Radwanska to pull out of the second round Tuesday. That one was a few inches short of Leonidis at Thermopylae.
After feeling a stab of knee pain on a backhand during the first game of the second set in a 6-2, 6-1 quarterfinal victory over Dominika Cibulkova, Wozniacki needed ice treatment Thursday before returning with her knee taped. Cibulkova failed to seize the moment. Wozniacki limped. Cibulkova lost focus. Game. Set. Wipe out.
During the ESPN broadcast, it was said that an examination showed no tears. Afterward, Woznacki deflected direct questions about the nature of the injury. She did say she was told she wouldn't further injure her knee. It was her decision to play.
"See how it goes basically," Wozniacki said. "There's a lot of [people] out there that would like to see this match. I felt like I could play. I always wanted to give it a shot."
Worcester said she approached Wozniacki before the match. She knew that Wozniacki had won 20 matches in a row at her tournament. She knew that Wozniacki hadn't dropped a set since the 2010 finals. She knew that Wozniacki had a chance to join Martina Navratilova, Chris Evert and Steffi Graf as the only ones to win five tournaments in a row. She knew that Wozniacki had become the beautiful face of the New Haven Open.
"I said, 'Caroline, I know you are very loyal to this tournament and to me, but I want to be perfectly clear that I'd never want you to risk your health. I hope you can play and get through, but I understand the situation.'"
"To be honest, I didn't expect her to play the semifinals. I was pleasantly surprised when she said she'd give it a go. I was concerned she wouldn't be able to finish. When Radwanska went out there and lost the first set, 6-0, I was shocked. I never would have scheduled her 7 p.m. feature match if I knew her shoulder was bothering her. Everyone was surprised. This wasn't a surprise."
Wozniacki didn't go crazy chasing after shots, but she was moving well. She wore a light wrap on her knee, but she wore no painful expressions or limped as she had in the quarters. Both players held serve through 10 games, Kirilenko broke to go up 6-5, and that was it.
"I could feel it from the start," said Wozniacki, who fully expects to be fine for the U.S. Open after a few days of rest. "But it started to get a bit worse. I wasn't going to win this match anyway if I'm not on 100 percent fit level."
"It was a difficult decision to stop."
In 2010, Wozniacki stuck through bad weather to win a Monday final at the Rogers Cup in Montreal. She still showed up at New Haven. A couple of nights later, she needed back massages between games against Cibulkova. Still, Wozniacki stuck around and won the title. At a time when there were so many questions about the future of the tournament, New Haven could count on Caroline.
"This tournament definitely has meant a lot to me," Wozniacki said. "There are a lot of players that never win a tournament. Winning the same one four times in a row is definitely special."
If she had won that first set, you've got to think she would have played a second. Losing it meant a tough three sets to beat the Olympic bronze medalist/Alex Ovechkin's girlfriend.
"If Caroline had won, I'd have been worried she wouldn't be able to finish the finals," Worcester said. "And you NEVER want that."
"I always have joked I don't have a withdrawal problem, I've got an entry problem. It's hard to find marquee names to commit early [before a late-summer major]. We've actually had fewer withdrawals than others over the years. Because they commit so late, they're sure they want to play. When Lindsay Davenport withdrew one year I was in a state of shock. The WTA said players withdraw all the time."
But not Caroline in New Haven.
"She came to me after the match and said how sorry she was," Worcester said. "She said, 'I hope I'll be invited back.'"
Worcester had a ready reply.
"Consider yourself invited," she said.