x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 23 January 2018

Rory McIlroy and Caroline Wozniacki: What's love got to do with it?

Since they starting dating in 2011, the athletic careers of golfer Rory McIlroy and tennis player Caroline Wozniacki have gone in opposite directions, writes Steve Elling.

Northern Ireland's Rory McIlroy, right, poses with his girlfriend, Denmark's tennis player Caroline Wozniacki, after he won the DP World Tour Golf Championship in Dubai in November. Karim Shaib / AFP
Northern Ireland's Rory McIlroy, right, poses with his girlfriend, Denmark's tennis player Caroline Wozniacki, after he won the DP World Tour Golf Championship in Dubai in November. Karim Shaib / AFP

As Rory McIlroy last rolled into the Gulf, the dials on the celebrity cooker had finally been adjusted from high heat to medium simmer.

McIlroy had been feted an hour earlier in Abu Dhabi as the new face of Nike, a deal reportedly worth up to US$250 million (Dh918.3m), but his mug had been splashed all over newspapers and the internet in Australia a few days previously, a buzz that still echoed as he arrived in the UAE.

Having landed Down Under in January with girlfriend Caroline Wozniacki, it was impossible to miss the new diamond on her left ring finger, a development that had the paparazzi popping.

The photos prompted stories about whether McIlroy, the reigning No 1 player in golf, had proposed to Wozniacki, the former No 1 in women's tennis.

Two weeks later, in a downstairs meeting room at Abu Dhabi's Fairmont Bahb Al Bahr Hotel, McIlroy kicked back in comfy chair, having just completed a carefully choreographed Nike introduction that included holograms, water cannons, video boards and floodlights.

That said, the ring on Wozniacki's finger was flashier than all of the above, begging the obvious question: So, no kidding around, you're actually not engaged, right?

"No, not yet," McIlroy said with a laugh.

An intriguing answer, to be sure. Yet purely from Wozniacki's career standpoint, nyet might be the best path going forward.

"Wozilroy" have been the No 1 love couple in sports since they began dating in the summer of 2011, and in the 19 months since, a curious thing has transpired: their time together has resulted in the fastest changeover imaginable, a swapping of both position and reputation.

For reasons fuzzier than a tennis ball, Wozniacki represents just the latest in a series of prominent female tennis players, all former No 1s, to have dated or wed golfers of notable pedigree over the past decade.

Indeed, the outcome has become almost predictable - becoming a male golfer's mixed-doubles partner is a risky proposition.

McIlroy over the past 19 months has rocketed to the top of his profession, while Wozniacki has backtracked and faced a series of blunt questions about who, if anybody, is responsible.

In more cynical circles, that has been asked and answered. Six months ago, with the Danish player suffering through a series of early defeats, one website posted a story, with bar graphs as evidence, entitled: "It's official: Rory McIlroy single-handedly destroyed Caroline Wozniacki's tennis career".

While snark and bark are the coin of the realm in the internet world, the Rory-related timing of the skid cited in the story was inarguable. It has not been a double-bogey, either; their career headed in opposite directions, especially in 2012.

As Wozniacki, 22, plays this week and next in Qatar and Dubai, the locale serves to underscore the crux of the concern. Last year in Dubai, she was ranked No 1 in the world and was the defending champion.

This time around, she has dropped to No 10.

Conversely, McIlroy was ranked No 5 when they began dating, and in 2012 enjoyed the best season by any player in years, winning five times globally and becoming a runaway pick as the top player on the European and US PGA tours. His position in the rankings is unassailable.

Not so Wozniacki's. Twice after matches last year, she was politely asked if her relationship with the Northern Irishman was tangentially responsible for her slump. She was more blunt than her inquisitor.

"No," Wozniacki twice shot back, without embellishment.

Perhaps their divergent trajectories are a confluence of luck and coincidence, but the results skew a certain way. The interpretive database is no longer golf-ball small, either.

In the 18 months before her romance with McIlroy began, Wozniacki reached 16 tournament finals, winning 12 times. In the first six months of 2011 alone, she won five times and lost two other events in the finals.

In the 19 months since being linked to McIlroy, she won three tournaments, but eight times she was bounced from a tournament in her first match and 22 times she lost to players ranked outside the top 10. She landed in Qatar with a 68-31 mark in singles play since July of 2011.

Perhaps McIlroy is just a convenient target, since Wozniacki benefited from being a good player with even better timing. A defence-first player, she climbed the rankings as Maria Sharapova and Serena Williams fought injuries.

"Caroline's slump is not surprising, given that her two main weapons when she was No 1 were her backhand and her movement," the ESPN tennis analyst Pam Shriver said. "Neither of those weapons invoke any intimidation on the part of her opponents.

"Her rise to the top ranking was a result of playing a lot and doing very well in regular tour events."

In terms of the biggest events in their respective arenas, McIlroy has already won two grand slam events in golf, while Wozniacki has reached one major final and lost.

For elite golfers and tennis players, individual sports with extreme scrutiny at the highest levels, it does not take much to knock a player off stride. Wozniacki has fired two coaches over the past few months and her father, Piotr, a former professional footballer, is again handling her coaching.

"I think Caroline would play better when she achieves more tennis independence and her dad separates himself from her inner circle," Shriver said.

McIlroy has certainly become part of the inner circle. Practically inseparable, except when competing, they have issued a series of amusing, social-media photos taken together atop skyscrapers and snow-capped mountains. Yet only McIlroy remains in professional ascent.

A true believer, Wozniacki said last month that McIlroy has only broadened her horizons and that he should, in fact, make her a better player.

"I can learn from him and how the golfers approach things and how he approaches things and how he practices and how focused he is," she told the New York Times. "So I think we can learn something from each other."

Reciprocity in the results has been difficult to spot. Maybe golf and tennis just don't coalesce, since plenty of other female stars have tried, and failed, to make it work, including the former No 1s Ana Ivanovic, Martina Hingis, Venus Williams, and most spectacularly, Chris Evert, whose controversial marriage to Greg Norman was shorter than some 18-hole rounds.

Still effervescent as ever, Wozniacki was in Dubai in mid-November, chatting up fans and reporters as McIlroy won the European Tour's Race to Dubai finale, sewing up every meaningful annual award in the game for 2012.

"If I didn't have a job myself, I might have come out a few more weeks," she said. "It's difficult, but we're making it work and it's working well."

And the pundits have noted, she's about half right.

Where does the most high-profile power couple in sports go from here? Like the band on her left ring finger, we've gone full circle. Back in the meeting room at the Fairmont, McIlroy seemed amused that the engagement story had been broached and accepts that prying eyes are watching and probative fingers are pointing.

"You've got to take it for what it is," McIlroy said with a shrug. "You know, people see us together, they see the ring, that it's on that finger and assume. I guess if I was the public, I would assume the same thing."

So, no impending nuptials.

"No, not yet," he repeated.

This notion has a ring of truth: Given the turn in her career and the crazy theory being floated as to its cause, maybe that is positive news for Wozniacki after all.

 

 

Other notable pairing partners

The global landscape is dotted with romances between celebrity sports figures and, as with the rest of the population, we can find both successes and failures. Tennis heroes Steffi Graf and Andre Agassi have been married for 11 years and have two children. The former baseball player Ray Knight and the golf star Nancy Lopez were married for 27 years. The marriage of the gymnastics standouts Bart Conner and Nadia Comaneci, like some of her scores from the 1976 Olympics, seems like a perfect 10.

However, relationships between male golfers and female tennis players seem not to have enjoyed the same success. In fact, for several women who once ranked at the top of the sport, dating a golfer has not served as a springboard to more success. Usually, it’s been the contrary.

Former No 1 Martina Hingis and Sergio Garcia The Swiss Miss was last ranked No 1 in mid-October of 2001 and she began dating the Spanish golfer in the spring of 2002. Thereafter, she never again climbed back to the top of the ranking mountain. She played in her last grand slam final in January 2002. She won three slam titles in 1997.

Former No 1 Ana Ivanovic and Adam Scott This one did not turn out well for either,over the short term. The Australian golfer went into a deep slump and the Serb lost her No 1 ranking, though both have since climbed back into the top 15 in their respective professions. Ivanovic was twice ranked No 1 in 2008, shortly before she and Scott began dating, in early 2009.

Former No 1 Chris Evert and Greg Norman This was a clear double fault. Close friends for years and well into their 50s when they finally wed in a lavish US$2 million (Dh7.35m) ceremony in the Bahamas in 2008, the marriage lasted

only 18 months and damaged the reputations of each partner. The American had previously been married to the tennis player John Lloyd and the skier Andy Mill (with whom she had three children) and earlier was engaged to Jimmy Connors.

Former No 1 Caroline Wozniacki and Rory McIlroy In the 18 months before Wozniacki began dating the Northern Irishman, she won 12 times. In the 19 months since, the Dane lost her No 1 ranking, fell out of the top 10 and has only three victories. McIlroy, meanwhile, rocketed to No 1 last year, winning five times worldwide and claiming the top-player honours on both major tours.

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