When No. 1 Isn't Enough

When No. 1 Isn't Enough

Caroline Wozniacki says she's never chased fame, only tennis excellence. But her search for fulfillment? That's been a longer, tougher journey.


This is one of four cover stories to appear in ESPN The Magazine's June 8 World Fame issue. Subscribe today!

Sitting in a soundstage dressing room chair surrounded by a stylist, makeup artist and camera crew, Caroline Wozniacki chats amiably as her long hair is ironed flat. She's driven herself to a photo shoot and television appearance dressed in Adidas workout gear, the faintest whiff of sweat leaching from her zip-up. Sharp tan lines circle where her tennis socks hit her legs, 4 inches above the ankle, cheeks still red from her customary two-hour court workout, followed by gym time with her trainer.

Wozniacki smiles when she talks. An effortless, perfect beam. Not too big, no hint of wolfishness or desperation or phoniness or cheese. Just white teeth, pink gums, a walking Colgate ad. The smile of someone who realized long ago the disarming power of approachability.

ESPN The Magazine goes behind the scenes at the tennis star Caroline Wozniacki's World Fame 100 shoot.

It is because of the smile that Wozniacki, 27, looks more like a guileless teenager than a 2018 Grand Slam titleholder and current No. 2 singles player on the WTA tour. Her swagger masked by sanguinity and packaged in standard Danish beauty (blonde, lean, unfussy). Her default manner is open, unbothered. The kind of celebrity pro people remark upon as being unexpectedly funny, or "so chill." (Her nickname among her peers: "Sunshine.")

"Chip and Joanna [Gaines] are my favorites," Wozniacki says, as she and her stylist debate the aesthetic value of bangs and swoon about HGTV. "I told my fiancé, we should get on it. And I'm a big fan of 'Teen Mom'," she adds, wrinkling her nose and curling her shoulders forward, telegraphing embarrassment. The stylist laughs, wraps a tendril of hair around a taut ponytail. "Chelsea is my favorite. And Maci," Wozniacki continues, then shrugs, smiles, any shame around her viewing habits dissipating like vapor.

"I feel like I know them," she says, pausing a beat, before adding, "Just like how some people feel they know me."


Caroline Wozniacki's father, Piotr, has been her primary coach since the beginning of her tennis career. Paul Crock/AFP/AP Photo

WOZNIACKI WAS 9 when she gave her first interview, a profile in the local paper of the child from Odense, Denmark, gifted with a preternatural facility with a racket. Not long after, a television crew filmed her for a show called "Wonder Kids." They gave Wozniacki a camera so she could shoot footage from home. "I would have my older brother, Patrik, film me doing push-ups," she says. Wozniacki demanded he do multiple takes, a perfectionist workhorse even then.

By the time "Wonder Kids" aired, a 10-year-old Wozniacki had won the under-12s national championship. "Every match 6-0, 6-0. That brought some attention," she says dryly. More media followed, interview after interview, a relentless pursuit of the young girl who couldn't lose.

"It was her dream, not ours," says her mother, Anna, 55, a former volleyball player on Poland's national team. "People thought it was too much, like, 'There's something wrong with the girl.' But Caroline, she wanted to be No. 1 in the world."

At 14, Wozniacki took the Women's National Championships, a victory that brought with it her first taste of public resentment, along with bigotry directed at her Polish immigrant parents, especially father Piotr, a retired pro soccer player. "They said because we were from Poland, we put pressure on her," Anna says bluntly.

"Some of the other moms and dads were like, 'How is she so good, and why is my kid not winning?'" Wozniacki recalls.

Critics painted Piotr, 56, who was then and has always been Wozniacki's primary coach, as a tyrant, cruelly forcing his genetic prodigy to extremes. "Not true," he says with a head shake. "Every day Caroline was coming to train with a smile. I stop the practice, and Caroline asks, 'Can we practice more?'"

“You reach the highest pinnacle and then realize that everything is the same. It's depressing. Life really just goes on.”


Caroline Wozniacki

Wozniacki tells a story about her father promising to run with her at 8 a.m. When the morning rolled around, Piotr was still in bed, weary from attending a party the evening before. He suggested they exercise later.

"I said, 'No!'" Wozniacki recalls. "'You promised 8 a.m, let's go.'" She was 11.

Piotr got in the habit of switching tennis clubs so his daughter could face fresh challenges. She began practicing with the Danish men's national team. "I became one of the guys." All the while, her public profile heightened.

At 15, Wozniacki turned pro and was so well known she could not leave home without being recognized. By then, her achievements had eclipsed the early spate of public disapproval, turning Wozniacki into a Danish hero, a presentable star on the international stage. Kournikova with consistency. Sharapova with warmth.

"Everyone who knew sports knew about me at that point," she says, insisting that even at that age, she fed on the pressure, embraced life under the microscope. "I kind of got used to it. It's part of the game."

Piotr preached to his daughter that talent was only the last 10 percent of the equation for success. The rest, discipline. So Wozniacki played four hours of tennis daily, three hours of gym on top of that.

"I thought the harder I pushed myself, the more exhausted I was, the better the training had gone," Wozniacki explains.

She applied the same work ethic to dealing with the media, making herself available to all comers. "I didn't find it as overwhelming as some players," she says. The wunderkind found it "normal."

A few months after her 20th birthday, Wozniacki became No. 1 in the world. It was the culmination of her lifelong dream. Validation, she thought, of her path of sacrifice and self-control.

"I'd been dreaming of this moment for so long, thinking that it was going to be something crazy and my life was going to change."

The next morning, Wozniacki had a scheduled match. Piotr reminded her to concentrate on her footwork with her forehand. And as she took the court to warm up, it hit Wozniacki like a brick to the face that "nothing had really changed."

She won the tournament. When she arrived home, she sat down and had a come-to-Jesus moment about the point of it all.

"You reach the highest pinnacle and then realize that everything is the same," she says. "It's depressing. Life really just goes on."

She decided that perhaps she'd been wrong about the endgame, about what matters most in a full life.


From the very start of her tennis career, Wozniacki wanted to be No. 1. And nobody pushed her harder than herself.

JUST ACROSS THE channel from Miami Beach, Fisher Island is a honey pot of wealth. A 216-acre island accessible only by ferry and a fat bank account, the area boasts the highest per capita income in the United States. It's the sort of place where you see a model "walking" her standard poodle by golf cart. Where peacocks roam the grounds as living, squawking ornaments, house keys are unnecessary and everyone waves when they pass each other, intoxicated by sea air and their shared good fortune.

Wozniacki, currently the leading earner on the WTA tour, moved to the island five years ago, living and training there (when not at her rental in Monaco) on courts that, as of March 2018, bear her name. Her parents followed suit, buying their own place walking distance from hers.

During practice, Wozniacki hits every ball full force, taking few breaks, her gaze fixated across the net or on her father, who critiques from center court. Anna runs to the baseline, offers a towel. Wozniacki waves her off. Behind the fence, her fiancé, former NBA All-Star David Lee, watches from the shade.

"She makes that shot look so easy," Lee says. "It's unbelievably hard." He swallows a long swig of water in the 90-degree heat. "I've played with her two times. She doesn't like to hit with me."

Lee, 35, met Wozniacki through mutual friends a couple of years ago.

"Obviously she's a beautiful girl, but the way she handles herself is what really attracted me," he says. "I've never seen the discipline and focus she has out of anybody I've ever played with in the NBA. I didn't have the focus that she has."

Lee and Wozniacki got engaged in November 2017 after she won the WTA Finals in Singapore, Lee calling proposing "a no-brainer." In addition to their airy condo on Fisher, the pair share property in Los Angeles and New York. They're trying to decide where they want to settle and raise a family. Wozniacki wants four seasons. Lee prefers warmth. Schools are top of mind.

Their current place is tidy and sparsely decorated. Some generic silver objects. A handful of family photos. A wide, white leather sectional. A glass dining table with a vase of roses, the rubber band still looped snug around the stems, sitting on top. Beside the flowers, a toddler-sized Miami Heat tracksuit, a gift for Wozniacki's nephew. By the front door, a poster displays an Elizabeth Edwards quote: "She stood in the storm, and when the wind did not blow her way, she adjusted her sails."

Wozniacki's practice and gym workout over, she showers for a late lunch. Barely five minutes elapse before she emerges flush, dressed in leggings and a green Adidas T-shirt, hair pulled in a wet ponytail.

"Welcome to my world," Lee says of her astonishing grooming speed. "She always ends up sitting around waiting for me!"

"I played with the boys as a kid," Wozniacki explains. "If I took too long, I would get left behind."

At home, Lee and Wozniacki don't talk tennis. They say they've figured out a healthy balance. They know Wozniacki is a public figure and exposure is good for the brand, if bad for the soul. So they thread the needle.

"Ninety-nine percent of what we do is very, very low-key and not glamorous whatsoever," Lee says.

Reminded that the couple attended the Vanity Fair Oscar party earlier this year, Lee says, "Yeah, but that was after Caroline did two workouts that day. Then we flew out the next morning and she trained that day too."

The quiet domesticity is a departure from Wozniacki's early 20s, when she was viewed as a bit of a jet-setter, the tabloids never more feverishly on her tail than when she was engaged in 2014 to golfer Rory McIlroy.

The two A-list athletes were paparazzi catnip, feeding the fire by goofing and vamping in public -- like the time Wozniacki colored her hair neon pink for the Par-3 contest ahead of the 2014 Masters, at McIlroy's request. "I wanted it to match the [course] azaleas," he explained. Their relationship imploded in May 2014 when McIlroy unceremoniously dumped Wozniacki via phone after they'd mailed out their wedding invites. The messy split was dissected in the international media. Tennis icon Chris Evert theorized in USA Today that Wozniacki's game was better after the breakup. Three months later, she was the runner-up in the U.S. Open. "She's playing with more fearlessness and with more boldness," Evert argued. "She is so comfortable in her own skin." (About a year after the breakup, Wozniacki modeled in the 2015 Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue -- the first of several appearances.)

The on-blast jilting brought new math to Wozniacki, prompting her to recalibrate her relationship with her image, something she is still doing.

"I definitely feel scrutinized," she says flatly. As such, these days she's pulling back a bit, being selective about social media, public appearances, "trying to live a down-to-earth life" -- to, after decades in the public eye, "choose how much I want to give."

"If you make everybody happy, you're doing something wrong," Wozniacki says.

Wozniacki starts a load of laundry as she and Lee lightheartedly bicker about the next day's schedule. The two head to her parents' condo, a two-minute golf-cart ride away. Wozniacki takes the wheel, driving so enthusiastically her phone is thrown to the pavement. Lee hops out to retrieve it, then checks for cracks in the screen before they speed on. The couple arrives, and the family Pomeranian, Bruno, greets them at the door, manically barking. Wozniacki scoops him up, cuddles him like a stuffed animal.

Anna plunks homemade chicken stir-fry and a pitcher of water on the table, "I hope you like," she says, and the family takes their seats, except for Piotr, who is lounging on a nearby couch, keenly watching Manchester City vs. Liverpool on the flat-screen. Wozniacki gobbles two heaping plates of lunch, hurriedly pushing the food onto her fork with her knife. Lee mentions that she speaks Polish, Danish, English, some Russian.

"Sometimes I will correct her English, and she'll flash me a look, and I'll be like, yeah, I don't know s---," he says, laughing.

"We came to Denmark when we were 23, 24 years old," says Anna of her and Piotr's defection from communist Poland in 1985. "The borders were closed. You couldn't get your passport. You were only allowed outside from 6 a.m. to 10 p.m."

Piotr and Anna saw a chance to escape when there was interest in him joining a soccer team in Denmark. The couple left with no chance of coming home. "Big decision, big decision," Piotr says softly.

A few years after the Polish border reopened in 1989, the family thought about going back. But the kids had started school. And, says Anna, "we felt better in Denmark than in Poland."

They feel the same about their new life in Florida, the privileged existence they've carved from tireless devotion to their children, coaching (son Patrik is a professional soccer player in Denmark), supporting, pouring faith into their dreams, as improbable as those dreams might have seemed from the start.

"We did this together, the whole family," Anna says, fanning an arm in front of her chest. "From nothing, we came to this position and I can only be proud of it."

"I see it this way," Piotr explains. "Miami, people here, they respect my family. I am proud as a father." He references the tennis courts, the brown and gold plaque literally set in stone and adorned with the Wozniacki name. "These are small things. But maybe," his eyes twinkle, a grin spreading across his face, "this is big thing."

Wozniacki considers her path to moments like these, emphasizes that fame was never something she chased. (Excellence, yes.) But talent exposes, magnetizes, draws public interest like ants to spilled honey, especially if that honey is a 5-foot-10 blonde.

Now she's finding better ways to use her visibility beyond pink hair and bikini shoots.

"As a young player, I felt like I couldn't speak my mind without being looked at like, 'Who does she think she is?'" Wozniacki says.

She credits best friend Serena Williams with spurring her nascent outspokenness.

"It's important for me to let every woman know they can have a voice and a loud voice," Williams says. "Caro found that voice and was so ready to use it."

Last year, Wozniacki publicly questioned why Maria Sharapova got a wild-card entry at the U.S. Open only a few months after serving a 15-month suspension for banned drug use, labeling Sharapova's inclusion and elevation to Center Court "a questionable thing to do." This March, Wozniacki called out the Miami Open crowd on social media, saying fans went beyond cheering for local favorite Monica Puig, rooting against Wozniacki to the point of taunting her family in the stands, including Lee's 10-year-old niece and nephew. Wozniacki has since threatened to boycott the 2019 tournament for what she says was an inadequate response by event officials.

"The fans were s---ty, and I spoke up because I don't think that's a great example to set," she says. As for Sharapova, "We should show young players if you choose that path, it has consequences. I'm very passionate about drug use because I've spent so many years fighting fair. I got drug-tested this morning, actually. At 6 a.m."

"Becoming a champion so young and keeping success for so long is rare," says Williams, who met Wozniacki after her sister Venus invited a then-16-year-old Wozniacki to play doubles with her in Doha. Since their introduction, Wozniacki and Serena Williams have been tight, vacationing together, attending Mariah Carey concerts, Rangers games. Sharing, "too many fun times," Williams says.

"Caro has always been a special person, warm, loving, humble," Williams says of her friend. She added that Wozniacki, who plummeted to No. 74 in the WTA rankings in 2016 after battling a string of injuries, taught her that quitting is "not an option."

"Sixteen months ago, she was having a few hard breaks, but she kept going. Caro teaches me that whatever you do, and no matter how far you fall, do it with grace and also get back up with grace."

Williams says Wozniacki hasn't changed over the years, Wozniacki echoing the same of Williams, even as the latter's iconic sphere of influence has ballooned during their friendship.

Serena Williams and Wozniacki have shared "too many fun times," including attending a Mariah Carey concert the night before their WTA Finals semifinal match in 2014. Darron Cummings/AP Photo

"When you're close to someone, you don't see them as a famous person, you see them as the person they are," Wozniacki explains, acknowledging that she has witnessed firsthand how those in Williams' orbit freak out in her presence. "It's a double-edged sword," she says of the fevered mania, emphasizing that a Williams level of limelight is not on her to-do list. "I like walking in my sweats through the supermarket. I just want to be myself."

Wozniacki's current bent toward authenticity comes with a hard-won intolerance for BS. She loathes fakery, the backstabbing she's observed and experienced over her career.

"I'm at this point where if I'm going to spend time with somebody, I want them to know who I am. If they like it? Awesome. If they don't? That's not really my problem anymore." It's a wisdom she has acquired with age. "If you make everybody happy, you're doing something wrong."

Wozniacki mentions that day eight years ago when she was first crowned best in the world. The startling, unbidden emptiness that followed.

"It was hard. I was like, well, what is it really about? What actually drives me? And I realized it's the ups and downs, the early hours, the late nights, everything. That's what's satisfying. Obviously you reach your goal and it's great, but it's not going to change your life. The journey does that."

Wozniacki grins. Her face bright, unperturbed.

Lunch over, Wozniacki makes plans to leave the island for a gel manicure, her one nod to vanity. She has long, thin fingers, deep nail beds.

"Your hands are one of the first things people see," she explains, miming shaking hands.

She reflects on her career. How far she's come. No longer a wonder kid. Now occupied with having kids of her own.

"The moment I'm not hungry anymore, it's time to stop," she declares, saying the thought of retirement doesn't frighten her. Nor does the risk of obscurity.

"That's the beauty of being an athlete," she says. "As soon as you're done, other people come up after you. There's another amazing player, or a new young blonde. Whatever it is. You are forgotten. And I think that's great."

A few minutes later, Wozniacki pulls onto the ferry in her white Land Rover. The water choppy enough to lean the vehicle to and fro as it cruises toward Miami. Unruffled, she waves through the passenger window, nose pressed close to the glass. Sunlight glints on the surface, her smile reflecting like a hall of mirrors.

Allison Glock has been a writer with ESPN for more than 15 years. The author of seven books, her work has appeared in the New Yorker, the New York Times, GQ, Esquire, Rolling Stone, Outside, Men's Journal and many other publications. She has also written and produced for television and is currently developing a series with A&E.