Can Caroline Wozniacki still challenge?

Caroline Wozniacki might not be No. 1, but she was still being scrutinized at Doha. AP Photo/Osama Faisal

DOHA, Qatar -- When Caroline Wozniacki arrived at the Qatar Total Open this week she sounded relieved to no longer be the No. 1 player in the world.

She journeyed from nearby, where she spent a stress-free, mini-vacation trailing boyfriend Rory McIlroy, hole by hole, at the Dubai Desert Classic last week. McIlroy, the reigning U.S. Open champion led midway through the tournament but finished 4 shots off the lead, tying for fifth place, which bumped the Irishman down from No. 2 to No. 3 in golf's world rankings.

Like her boyfriend, Wozniacki knows a thing or two about receiving a ranking demotion. She fell from the top ranking to No. 4 after losing to Kim Clijsters in the Australian Open quarterfinals last month.

For Wozniacki, it wasn't all hearts and flowers at No. 1. Throughout her entire reign she was badgered to defend herself as the rightful No. 1 amidst allegations that the ranking system must be flawed if someone who hadn't won a Grand Slam title could hold the top spot for so long. Except for last February when Kim Clijsters took a one-week vacation at No. 1, Wozniacki was the reigning goddess from October 2010 through the 2012 Australian Open.

"It's just nice that actually I don't get the question every press conference: 'You're No. 1 but haven't won a Grand Slam,'" said Wozniacki at a pre-tournament press conference. "So at least I get that off my back and people don't get disappointed if I lose a finals or semifinals, which would be a disaster before. Now someone else can have that, and I just can play."

All that said and guess what? Yup. Her relief was short-lived.

Wozniacki might not be No. 1, but she was still being scrutinized at Doha, her first tournament appearance since losing the top ranking. Why? It turned out she was ushered to the exit of Khalifa International Tennis and Squash Complex in her first match played -- a second-round 4-6, 6-4, 7-6 (3) defeat to Czech Lucie Safarova.

Wozniacki was disconsolate after the loss on Wednesday night. She was fighting back tears and choked up when talking: "Yeah, it was a close match and I had three match points in the third set and I didn't take them, and Lucie served three very good serves. Of course, it's very disappointing right now. Just need to move on and try to do better in the next one."

The match against Safarova was clearly close and the No. 28 Safarova isn't a lightweight. However, that's the type of match that a recent No. 1 is supposed to pull out.

Not surprisingly, Wozniacki would've probably preferred to have a tooth extracted than have to answer questions about what went wrong here in Doha. So she basically shut down the press conference, saying, "Well, to be honest, I haven't played the last few weeks. It is my first tournament since the Australian Open, and I played pretty well there. I'm not confused. To be honest, I just want to get out of here, because it's not really fun to be here [press conference] when you've lost a match like that."

The 28th-ranked Safarova pieced together one element of the Wozniacki wobble: Players have figured out how to play the 21-year-old Dane. They know she's a relentless counterpuncher who moves well, and has great anticipation and power. But they also know her serve is weak enough to challenge and she doesn't have that one huge weapon that most champions possess.

"It's like this: When you are a top player, every player who comes to play you has nothing to lose," Safarova said. "So, of course, they play their best, and we watch each other. We know what is a little bit weaker, weaknesses and strengths of the player, and we try to apply the tactics in the matches."

Many in the media also knew how to try to play her, pushing the buttons by suggesting she lacked the necessary requirement of being a No. 1: a Grand Slam title.

For the most part, Wozniacki would take those comments in her stride, insisting with a defiance that she deserved to be No. 1. She didn't design the computer. She just plays a lot, does well a lot, and the computer system rewards for that kind of output.

Other players agreed and still agree.

"You know, we have the point system, and I think when you're No. 1 you're No. 1 for a reason," said No. 9 Sabine Lisicki earlier this week. "You've won a lot of points to be there, so, you know, it's just the ranking system. It works that way. That's how it is."

But nowadays, Wozniacki, whether she admits it or not, increasingly looks like a player whose confidence has been shaken. Her support team certainly seemed disarmed as the third-set tiebreaker unraveled in Safarova's favor; father, Piotr, who is back to being her primary coach now that she ended her unsuccessful two-month coaching relationship with Ricardo Sanchez, and McIlroy watched painfully from the stands.

It's at the Doha-type events where Wozniacki usually shines. Last year, she won a third of her 18 titles: Dubai, Indian Wells, Charleston, Brussels, Copenhagen and New Haven. And she was a runner-up in Doha and Stuttgart. It's that kind of year -- playing frequently and making it to many later rounds -- that delivered Wozniacki to No. 1.

Her ranking won't change next week even after her early departure from Doha. But she needs to get it together mentally if she's going to stay close to the top, if not regain No. 1 status.

"You know, I just hope I can win some matches in Dubai next week, do better than here," she said, right before admitting she really didn't want to be talking any longer. McIlroy hovered close to the pressroom door and the two -- nicknamed "Wozilroy" -- walked away together, perhaps trying to think about better times, such as their Valentine's Day dinner the night before that Wozniacki tweeted about lovingly.