CHAMP FIGHT­ING FIT

Woz­ni­acki says she’s ready to de­fend ti­tle despite health is­sues

NewsMail - - SPORT - RE­BECCA WIL­LIAMS

TEN­NIS: Aus­tralian Open cham­pion Caro­line Woz­ni­acki is con­fi­dent her game is in strong shape to de­fend her crown at Mel­bourne Park af­ter a shock health di­ag­no­sis last year.

The heart­warm­ing story of last sum­mer when she won her maiden grand slam crown, Woz­ni­acki re­vealed at the WTA fi­nals late last year that she had been di­ag­nosed with rheuma­toid arthri­tis.

While Woz­ni­acki said the auto-im­mune con­di­tion had not forced her to make any changes to her game, she has had to be­come smarter lis­ten­ing to her body dur­ing train­ing and re­cov­ery.

But af­ter recharg­ing dur­ing the off­sea­son, the No.3 seed said she was ready to at­tack her ti­tle de­fence in the open­ing grand slam of the year.

“All I can say is that I feel good. I feel like I’m hit­ting the ball well. So ... I’m happy with that,” Woz­ni­acki said.

“I think you just al­ways try to fig­ure out what’s work­ing and what’s not, then you lis­ten to the body, you try a few dif­fer­ent things.

“For me, it’s just all the time mak­ing sure I get good mas­sag­ing, good treat­ments, ice baths, stretch­ing, do ev­ery­thing even more thor­oughly than maybe in the past.

“Then you just lis­ten ex­tra. If you’re not feel­ing good one day, then you take it eas­ier.

“I’m just try­ing to learn my body, get­ting to know my body even bet­ter. That’s re­ally it.”

In re­flec­tion, Woz­ni­acki be­lieved she had been suf­fer­ing from the con­di­tion for “quite a while”.

“I prob­a­bly just thought I’ve just over­trained, over­done it a lit­tle bit,” she said.

“So it wasn’t un­til I re­ally had a big flare-up that I re­ally was like, ‘Okay, there’s some­thing not quite right’.”

Woz­ni­acki broke through to claim her first grand slam ti­tle last year – at her 43rd ma­jor event – af­ter de­feat­ing Si­mona Halep in a clas­sic three-set fi­nal at Mel­bourne Park.

The Dane said it was a great feel­ing to be back as the de­fend­ing cham­pion, adding the emo­tions of her ti­tle win flooded back when she prac­tised on cen­tre court for the first time.

“I think it’s a pos­i­tive to be here as the de­fend­ing cham­pion. I’m just tak­ing it as a nice, fun chal­lenge,” Woz­ni­acki said. “I can’t be­lieve it’s al­ready been a year.

“It doesn’t feel like it to me. But, yeah, it’s great to be back. My first prac­tice was on Rod Laver, and it was just nice. I felt com­fort­able straight­away when I hit balls on that court. It was just a good feel­ing.

“Then, you know, you see your pho­tos all over the place, which is cool. So, yeah, it’s def­i­nitely great to be back.”

Woz­ni­acki spent the off-sea­son hol­i­day­ing in the Mal­dives, Europe and tak­ing in a Liver­pool game at An­field to re­fresh her mind and body for the 2019 sea­son.

“I took quite a bit of time for my­self, just to re­lax and en­joy,” she said.

Woz­ni­acki will take on Bel­gian Ali­son Van Uyt­vanck in the first round tonight.

Photo: LUKAS COCH

ON TRACK: Caro­line Woz­ni­acki of Den­mark in ac­tion dur­ing a prac­tice ses­sion on Mar­garet Court Arena.

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