Painful anniversaries can be tough for anyone to handle, but as Caroline Wozniacki prepares to deal with all the reminders of her split last year from the Irish golfer, Rory McIlroy, she appears to be in a strong frame of mind. “Happy Saint Patrick’s Day to all my Irish friends,” Wozniacki said on Twitter last week.
Ironic? Almost certainly not. McIlroy’s decision last spring to call off their engagement just days after the wedding invitations had gone out was clearly a devastating blow – “It feels like someone close to you has died,” Wozniacki said – but when the 24-year-old Dane talks about the way she has subsequently moved on in her life she does so without bitterness. Indeed, she believes the whole experience has made her a stronger person.
Wearing a grey tracksuit and with her hair tied back, Wozniacki was a picture of quiet self-assurance as she talked about the last year while sitting in a quiet corner of a media centre, away from the hubbub of tournament play. Without glossing over her pain, she explained calmly and candidly how she had picked up the pieces of her life after McIlroy’s bombshell.
If Wozniacki did not get back on her feet quite as quickly as McIlroy, who won the PGA Championship at Wentworth just days after breaking off their engagement, it was not long before she returned to her professional best. At the US Open in September Wozniacki played in her first Grand Slam final since 2009 and returned to the world’s top 10, having dropped to No 18 at this stage of last year. The former world No 1 is now back up to No 5, having claimed her 23rd career title earlier this month in Kuala Lumpur.
Away from the court, meanwhile, Wozniacki has demonstrated her mental strength and self-belief. She ran the New York Marathon at the end of last year and recently made a telling statement about her self-confidence when she posed for Sports Illustrated’s celebrated swimsuit edition.
It is a remarkable turnaround, considering how she felt when McIlroy broke his news last May. “In my head I had everything until that moment,” Wozniacki said. “I had a great career, I was getting married, I have a perfect family. Everything was great. There was really nothing going against me. I was happy, very happy.
“Then all of a sudden something happens that you don’t expect. You just see your world turned around, literally from one second to the next. I think I didn’t know how strong I was until that happened. And I didn’t know how much you can actually take. It really feels like someone close to you has died.
“You have to go through all of that. I think that taught me so much. I think I grew up so much in that short amount of time. I also realised who is always there for me and who is just there when things are good.
“And you learn just about life. You have to enjoy it while it’s there. You have to enjoy all the great moments. I think now when I look back I wouldn’t have been without it. Because now I really know that I’m strong, I know what I want, I know what I can accept, what I can’t accept, what I need, what I don’t need.
“I think those are all things that I can bring with me in the future. And if I meet another guy who I think is great, then I also know what I can expect from myself and from him.”
In the days and weeks that followed the breaking off of her engagement, Wozniacki found the value of family and true friends. Her father, Piotr, whose coaching of his daughter has drawn so much unfair criticism over the years, suggested she might want to skip her next tournament, the French Open.
“I had already had some injury problems with my knee and my wrist,” Wozniacki said. “My dad asked me before the tournament started: ‘Do you really want to go? You don’t have to. You can stay at home. You can just take it easy, take your time. You haven’t practised properly. You’re not in shape.’
“I said: ‘No, I need to go. I need to go because I feel, injury-wise, that I can play. Mentally I’m not there, but I need to get myself out of the house. I can’t just sit here and cry all day’.”
Wozniacki lost in the first round at Roland Garros to Yanina Wickmayer, the world No 64. “When I walked into the stadium or on to the court everybody was staring at me,” Wozniacki recalled. “I felt the pity. I was like: ‘I’m OK. I’m fine. Don’t give me your pity. Don’t come up to me and stroke me. I’m not a child. I’m going to be fine.’
“I was trying in the match, but I wasn’t there. I have to be happy to play. I have to be excited. At the time it was like a funeral for me. And in the back of my head I knew that I had to do a press conference. I was so nervous going into it. I’d never seen so many people [in the interview room] at the French Open. People were standing in line outside because they couldn’t get in.
“I was so happy [when it was over]. Afterwards I asked my dad to call a travel agent. I said: ‘Get me out of here as soon as you can.’ I went on the first flight to Miami and from there it was great.”
The publication of photographs of Wozniacki on a Florida beach with her friend Serena Williams, who had also made an early exit from the French Open, soon showed that she was determined to put the past behind her. “I grew so close to Serena,” Wozniacki said. “My family were there for me too, which was amazing. They gave the best support ever.”
Wozniacki believes her off-court issues were one of the reasons for the upturn in her form last summer. “I was trying to win every match because I knew that every time I had a match to play I was in my own little bubble and didn’t have to think about anything else,” she said.
“That gave me more hunger to win. Then I got on to a roll where I was winning a lot of my matches. My confidence grew and then you win back the respect of other players. I just went on a roll. It was a good period for me. It’s nice to be back in the top five. It’s where I feel like I belong.”
Running has always been an integral part of Wozniacki’s training and within weeks of the split from McIlroy she had entered November’s New York Marathon. She went on to complete the race in under three and a half hours, raising thousands for a children’s charity along the way.
Was entering the marathon part of her healing process? “I think it was great for me to have something else to think about. The wedding was supposed to be in November and I was like: ‘Instead of just sitting around, I’m going to make great things happen. I can help a lot of kids here.’ And I did. November was amazing and I had the best time of my life. It was definitely one of the best decisions ever.”
Perhaps the ultimate statement of Wozniacki’s renewed self-belief came when she agreed to her photo-shoot for Sports Illustrated’s swimsuit edition. “It was actually something that I’ve always wanted to do,” she said. “I was a little nervous at the start because I didn’t know the crew, but they made me feel so great straight away. They made me feel so comfortable.”
And her verdict on the photographs? “I thought they were great. I really like them. I was really pleased with them. I was in great shape after running the marathon. It was fun.