Wozniak named female athlete of year

Aleksandra Wozniak knocked off the reigning French Open champion, beat three other top-15 tennis players and sent a former world No. 1 packing in her swan-song tournament.

Aleksandra Wozniak returns the ball to Maria Kirilenko during the Kremlin Cup in Moscow. Wozniak knocked off the reigning French Open champion

Aleksandra Wozniak returns the ball to Maria Kirilenko during the Kremlin Cup in Moscow. Wozniak knocked off the reigning French Open champion

Aleksandra Wozniak knocked off the reigning French Open champion, beat three other top-15 tennis players and sent a former world No. 1 packing in her swan-song tournament.

Not bad for a 22-year-old who was sidelined early in 2009 with a tear in her right shoulder.

Wozniak’s breakthrough season has earned her The Canadian Press female athlete of the year award for 2009.

She collected 102 points, including 20 first-place votes, in voting by Canada’s sports editors and broadcasters to become just the third tennis player to win the Bobbie Rosenfeld Award.

Wozniak beat out hurdler Priscilla Lopes-Schliep (68 points), speedskater Christine Nesbitt (67 points) and hockey player Hayley Wickenheiser (59 points).

Helen Kelesi (1989, 1990) and Carling Bassett (1983, 1985) are the only other tennis players to win the award named after Rosenfeld, an Olympic champion and all-rounder who was voted Canada’s top female athlete for the first half of the 20th century.

Last season, the rising star from Blainville, Que., came closer to winning the cherished hardware of the top tournaments and almost cracked the world’s top-20 rankings.

“I was knocking the door at No. 21,” Wozniak said of her highest career ranking, which she reached in June.

Still, for Wozniak the achievements weren’t good enough — what 2009 gave her, more than anything, was a hunger to accomplish more.

“One day, I really want a Grand Slam — that’s going to be a dream come true,” she said. Wozniak’s 2009 season got off to a rocky start when a shoulder injury forced her to miss a month of competition. She pulled out of several tournaments in February and feared that her season could be over.

“I was lucky, I did a lot of rehab and it all healed pretty quickly,” she said, noting that a similar shoulder injury kept Russian Maria Sharapova off the court for almost a year.

“It took me out of competition for a couple of weeks, but when I came back I was ready mentally and physically.”

She wasted little time bouncing back, reaching the final at Ponte Vedra Beach, Fla., in April — defeating a top-10 player in Russia’s Nadia Petrova along the way.

After losing to Denmark’s Caroline Wozniacki in the Ponte Vedra Beach final, Wozniak’s season hit a lull and she failed to reach the third round in any of the next five tournaments.

But she turned things around in a big way the following month on the clay courts of Roland Garros. Wozniak battled her way to the fourth round of the French Open, where she eventually lost 6-1, 6-2 to world No. 2 Serena Williams.

She became the first Canadian in 17 years to reach the fourth round in Paris and the first in a decade to get that far in singles at any Grand Slam.

In June, Wozniak proved her run at Roland Garros was no fluke by overpowering French Open champ Svetlana Kuznetsova of Russia 6-0, 6-3 in Eastbourne, England.

The win helped launch Wozniak to No. 21 in the world, her highest ranking ever. She believes it gave her an added psychological edge over many opponents.

“They take me more seriously and they are more intimidated by me,” Wozniak said.

She rode that confidence into the U.S. Open, where she beat Amelie Mauresmo of France, a former top-ranked player, 6-4, 6-0.

It turned out to be the last match for the No. 17-ranked Mauresmo, who later announced her retirement from the sport.

“Playing on Arthur Ashe (Stadium) . . . it was something really special,” Wozniak said of the victory.

The win vaulted her into the third round, where she lost to No. 10 seed Flavia Pennetta of Italy.

Currently ranked No. 34, Wozniak finished the year in the top 40 for the second season in a row.

She didn’t win any titles in 2009, but continued her ascent toward elite status in the tennis world.

In 2008, she captured her only tour title in Stanford, Calif., and reached two semifinals and one quarter-final.

Wozniak started playing tennis at three years old under the guidance of her father and coach, Antoni, a former professional soccer player in his native Poland.

She was inspired to pick up a racket by watching her older sister Dorota play.

Antoni Wozniak, who works nights repairing trucks and coaches tennis by day, also guided Dorota, a former two-time NCAA champ.

Wozniak said her father, like the rest of her family, has been a great support in her life.

“My whole family, they keep supporting me — even when things are not going well, they’re always there,” Wozniak said.

As she prepares for a pair of warmup tournaments ahead of next month’s Australian Open, Wozniak aims to move even closer to realizing her two biggest goals: becoming the highest-ranked Canadian ever and the first to win a Grand Slam event.

“I hope I can encourage other young kids to be inspired like I was,” she said.

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