Caroline Wozniacki's roller-coaster career takes another strange turn

WIMBLEDON -- Caroline Wozniacki sits at a press-room podium an hour after her shocking second-round loss to Russian Ekaterina Makarova on Wednesday, her blonde hair in messy tangles around her face. She's arrived early, a rare occurrence for any player, and she isn't prepared to be here. Not this way, anyway. Not to answer these questions. She's still trying to work through how it all happened.

"I did everything I could. I fought as hard as I could. I can't even be mad at myself because I played up to the level that I can," Wozniacki said, her downcast demeanor double-crossing her words. "I think [Makarova] played above her level and really raised it and got a little lucky ... It's frustrating because I feel like I could have gone and done something really great here."

Wozniacki, the fifth top-eight seed in the women's draw to make an early exit, didn't need to rummage too far into her mind's annals to draw out a nearly identical match to the one she played Wednesday but one with a far different outcome -- a match she indeed followed by doing "something really great."

In the second round of the Australian Open in January, down a set and trailing 5-1, then 40-15 in the third, Wozniacki rallied to save match points against Jana Fett. She felt her opponent tighten, then attacked, eventually winning the game to stay alive 5-2. She went on to win the next five games, the third set 7-5 and, 10 days later, her first Grand Slam title. If she needed inspiration in the third set against Makarova, the memory of Melbourne was it -- only she didn't see it that way.

"I don't understand what one has to do with the other. I lost today. It's obviously not the way I wanted the day to go," Wozniacki said. "I played someone who went all-in with every single shot. I fought all I had. I just lacked just a little bit today ... I played someone who played extremely well. I don't know that she would be able to keep up this level for the rest of the tournament. I would be very surprised if you saw her go far."

This Caroline, who casts her eyes downward as she attempts to publicly reconcile how another Wimbledon went so wrong, stands in stark contrast to the polished player of an hour ago. That woman fought back from down a set, and then from down 5-1 and later down 5-4 and love-40 in the third to hold serve and remain in the match. No matter how closely the Court 1 cameras focused on her gaze, Wozniacki never betrayed doubt. The steely look in her eyes said she believed. The crowd believed. When Makarova took her seat during the changeover at 5-5, she smiled. It's likely she believed she'd opened the door too wide for the No. 2 player in the world.

"When it was five-all, I started thinking about those match points and my serve," Makarova said on court after the match. "I was really nervous and thought I needed to be more aggressive. Forty-love on grass is a huge advantage. I had too many match points. I told myself, 'Forget it and start over.' I'm glad I got calm."

That could serve as sage advice for the player on the other side of the net, the Dane for whom calm consistency has never come. Since making her first Grand Slam final at the US Open in 2009 -- the same year she reached No. 1 for the first time in her career -- Wozniacki, 27, has seen just two other Slam finals: at the 2014 US Open, which she lost to Serena Williams, and at the Australian in January, when she regained the No. 1 ranking for the first time in six years.

Her title in Melbourne was a long time coming, a blessing -- it was accompanied by a $4 million check, for starters -- but also a burden. As badly as she wanted to prove to her critics that she could win a major, Wozniacki wants to prove her run in Australia was no fluke. She knows that second-round exits are no longer acceptable; she's a Grand Slam champ and she's expected to win. But no Slam has plagued her like the one played at All England, the only major in which she's never advanced to the quarterfinals and has lost in the second round or earlier five times in 12 appearances.

"I had a chance today. I fought all I had. I'm out. That's it," Wozniacki said. "It's life sometimes. You just have to keep working and come back, and hopefully next time, luck will be on my side."

If she is able to right the ship and play deep into the draw in New York, the major where she's had the most success, or defend her title in Australia, Wednesday's loss might be remembered more for its quirks -- the first Wimbledon rains, an infestation of flying ants and extra-long bathroom breaks -- than for Wozniacki's defeat.