They ought to be the golden couple of sport: the beaming young Irish golfer, Rory McIlroy, who owns the US Open title, and Caroline Wozniacki, the world No1 who is reaching for the tennis equivalent at Flushing Meadows over the next two weeks.
But it isn’t working. If there has been a less convincing mascot in sport in recent years than apple-cheeked young Rory, it might be Wolfie, who engaged in fisticuffs years ago on behalf of Wolverhampton Wanderers against the Three Little Pigs of Bristol City. Since he declared his affection for her, McIlroy has not exactly been a talisman for Wozniacki.
They met in Germany in July, when the Dane, a serious boxing fan who incorporates sparring in her preparation, was ringside for David Haye’s world heavyweight title fight against Wladimir Klitschko. Inevitably they rushed to the Twitter button. “Fantastic fight!” Wozniacki said in Hamburg. “Also met Rory McIlroy, who was sitting just behind me. Really down to earth great guy.”
It was not an opinion shared by Holly Sweeney, the golfer’s former long-time girlfriend, who duly hit a return tweet: “Rory McIlroy wrist injury fears: Well that’s what happens when ye get rid of yer girlfriend!” Nevertheless, the tabloids declared it the perfect love match, a cliche the couple have done their best to live up to.
McIlroy and Wozniacki were seen out and about in New York this week and he told reporters: “It’s working so well because we have so much in common. Obviously, different sports, but we’re pretty much in the same position at a young age and we can talk about things that probably a lot of 21, 22-year olds can’t talk about. It’s nice to have someone that understands what you’re going through.”
Most celebrities run a mile from the cameras; not Caroline and Rory. They have smiled from Hamburg to Ohio – except Wozniacki has not delivered the results that would round out the fairytale.
McIlroy was there for her again in Cincinnati two weeks ago, when she crashed out at the first time of asking for the second tournament in a row, having also lost in Toronto. Turmoil has been brewing for a couple of months. As she left for New Haven to defend a title she has won four times, Wozniacki revealed she and her father, Piotr, had ended their coaching relationship.
He confirmed the split but told a Danish newspaper that his daughter had asked him not to say who would be her new coach. Bizarrely, he has been appointed but has asked to remain anonymous. “It is entirely his own choice,” Wozniacki said this week of her reluctant new guide. “It was a joint decision that [my dad and I took]. He’s still my dad and a really good friend. It has not changed. I just get some input from the other side, too.”
The partnership between father and daughter started to sour at Wimbledon, where Wozniacki left in the fourth round for the third year in a row. He was unhappy with her lapses into long, defensive rallies. During the first week she sat among journalists in a Novak Djokovic press conference pretending to quiz the world No1, and seemed in good heart, but her game was in disarray. She seemed to have been robbed of her natural confidence.
Then she left London for the Haye-Klitschko fight, which was on the second Saturday of Wimbledon, and up popped Rory in the celebrity seats at ringside. Had she gone through to the final in London, they might never have met.
He could do her a favour, though, by staying out of the picture here, at least until she gets past Spain’s Nuria Llagostera Vives in the first round. Yet even her peers doubt she can put her tennis back together again in time to win the title, her first in a grand slam tournament, even though there is no clear favourite. Some favour the brilliant but brittle game of the third seed Maria Sharapova, who arrives buoyed by her win in Cincinnati. She opens her tournament against Britain’s Heather Watson.
Watson’s mentor and friend Elena Baltacha comes to New York on a decent run of form in Dallas, and plays the American wild card Jamie Hampton. She thinks Serena Williams has built up enough form to be regarded as the legitimate favourite, despite the United States Tennis Association seeding the former champion at 28.
“I don’t think Wozniacki is unbelievably confident at the moment,” Baltacha said. “It always surprises me [when players go out early before a big tournament]. But a lot of them play so well in the slams because they know that’s when they have to do it. A lot of them come not having done a thing for a while.”
She put little store in Sharapova’s patchy final in Cincinnati, in which the Russian beat Jelena Jankovic in a match riddled with errors on both sides. If a seasoned tour pro who sees these players up close week in week, out cannot find a reliable form line in the field, maybe Wozniacki has a decent chance after all.
On Saturday she beat Petra Cetkovska 6-4 6-1 to win the New Haven title, in her first final in several months. To get there, Wozniacki played exceptional tennis on Friday to beat the Italian Francesca Schiavone, who had dropped only six games all week.
“We had some good rallies out there,” Wozniacki said. “One of them [in the first set] we both stretched all we could.”
Maybe she has rediscovered her game at the right time. Whoever wins, the chaos that attends women’s tennis is not about to be resolved here to anyone’s complete satisfaction over the next couple of weeks.