In a way, Caroline Wozniacki was born to be an athlete. Growing up with two parents who played professional sports, it was only natural that she would have athletic pursuits of her own. At just seven years old, she started playing tennis, and she turned pro by the time she was 15 years old. This week, she'll play at the U.S. Open, where she's ranked number 2 in the world.
But unfortunately, it's rare for young women to stick with a sport for as long as Wozniacki has. A new survey conducted by Adidas found that fewer than 1 in 3 girls continue to play sports after school, and the biggest decline happens between the ages of 17 and 18. "I feel like sports give so much," Wozniacki says. "It's a way to learn how to set goals for yourself, find ways to reach those goals, and [have] discipline. The discipline of showing up — all of that just helped me to shape the person I am today."
Wozniacki is part of a new Adidas campaign aimed at empowering young athletes to stay in sports, alongside Billie Jean King, the tennis icon and women's rights advocate. "I'm so privileged to play tennis — obviously Billie Jean King paved the way for us. She was the one who got our first prize money, and has fought and paved the way for the next generations to stand up for everybody in women’s tennis," Wozniacki says. "I think it’s just so important that we have this opportunity, we have a platform, we can stand up for ourselves, we can show girls that because we're women we can do this. We can do more. We can empower each other." Lately, there's been a lot of attention on young athletes to see how they use their voices and platforms to make change. King says this comes naturally in sports: "[Playing sports] just empowers you," she says. "It teaches you to trust your body. Girls are taught not to trust their bodies growing up, yet we’re supposed to be perfect."
Ahead, Wozniacki spoke to Refinery29 about competition, equality, and why it's a privilege to have a platform.
So often girls are raised or socialized not to be competitive. Did you ever feel like that or did sports help you embrace your competitive spirit?
"I never felt that way. I think my family and people around me always encouraged me to be competitive. They always told me that it’s beautiful to be your own person, to be strong, and be able to stand up for yourself. I feel like women and girls have the right just as much as boys to stand up, and believe, and trust, and have a voice. We're going in the right direction now, with everything that's going on and equality. We still have a way to go, but I feel like were paving the way and showing the way."
In the past year, we’ve seen a reckoning happen in other sports like gymnastics, where young women are really finding their voices and learning to speak up as people rather than just athletes. What has it been like for you to watch all of that unfold?
"It’s obviously sad what the gymnasts are going through, and I'm sure a lot of other girls and women, but at the same time it's such a strong message to send. For them to have a voice that will stand up together as girls, and prove to the other girls even before it happens, that you have a voice. You can say no, you can say whatever you want, and just because you’re a girl or a woman, it doesn’t mean that you have less of a voice or less of a right.
I feel like women and girls have the right just as much as boys to stand up, and believe, and trust, and have a voice.
What advice would you have for a young athlete who isn't sure how to use their voice or be seen as a person, rather than just an athlete?
"Really, it’s just [to] believe in yourself. There will be people telling you that you can’t do something, there will be people telling you you’re not good enough. But honestly, impossible is nothing. As long as you work hard at your craft, and you’re passionate, and you love what you do I say, go for it. Don’t let anyone tell you that you can’t. Because you can and there really is no limit."
You've been playing professional tennis since you were 15 years old. Do you ever feel burnt out or like you wish you could take a break?
"Eventually you have to stop. Sports careers are usually somewhat short when you compare to other jobs you do for a long time. But again, I'm so privileged to be doing what I'm doing. I play in front of thousands and millions of people watching it on TV, and I'm able to have a voice. I have a platform, I can help other girls, I can inspire people, and I can do what I love and earn good money on it. I think it’s really a dream job.
"Obviously it took a lot of hard work to get there, but I'm so thankful that I'm in this situation. One day when I decide tennis is something I don’t want to do anymore, I definitely want to still be out there, and a spokesperson, and try and help girls and women. We're powerful, and if we stand altogether, we can definitely change the world."