There were mighty battles along the way, and not a few upsets, during the 50th playing of the Australian Open.
The winner in that year when tennis turned ‘Open’, Billie Jean King, would present the Daphne Akhurst trophy to this year’s champion. And through thick and thin, saving match-points along the way, surviving two three-setters apiece, and now into their third Major final each, the top two seeds, No1 Simona Halep and No2 Caroline Wozniacki, would contest the title in Melbourne.
And they could not have painted a more appropriate, more timely, more compelling scenario if they had tried. Both women had brought consistently high standards to court for many years, and both had enjoyed the No1 ranking, but neither had won a Major title. This final, then, represented tennis’s version of the Holy Grail for the champion. The winner would add her name to that special Majors honours board—but also claim the No1 ranking.
For Halep, the incumbent No1, the battle to the top spot had raged long and hard through 2017, with the No1 ranking changing hands seven times. On many of those occasions, Halep was within touching distance, but saw the likes of Karolina Pliskova and Garbine Muguruza beat her to it.
She was ultimately rewarded with a final run in Beijing, and had now been No1 since last October. The Shenzhen title earlier this month kept her in pole position, yet her lead coming to Melbourne remained so narrow that five women threatened her place.
One by one, Muguruza, Pliskova, Elina Svitolina, and Jelena Ostapenko fell out of contention. However, Wozniacki had worked her way back to peak form from a ranking of 20 in Australia last year, reaching eight big finals, winning two of them.
The culmination of 2017 brought the Dane her biggest title to date, the WTA Finals, and like Halep, she started 2018 with the same intent. A final finish in Auckland took her to No2 and within striking distance of the No1 ranking a full six years after she first rose to the top.
Her resilience and fitness carried her through an early near-upset against Jana Fett: Wozniacki came back from 5-1 down in the third set to win 7-5 after more than two and a half hours. She went on to reach the final without facing anyone ranked over No19 and in fine fettle.
Indeed the No2 seed was able to put up her feet and enjoy the women’s match of the tournament unfold between Halep and former champion Angelique Kerber, a two-hour-20-minute contest of such intensity that both women looked close to collapse by the time Halep edged to her 9-7 victory.
The top seed, indeed, had almost two more hours in her legs than Wozniacki, courtesy not just of Kerber but a tough draw that included Pliskova, rising star Naomi Osaka, and a formidable Lauren Davis, who finally acquiesced, 13-15, in the third set after three and three-quarter hours.
What did Halep, who twisted her ankle in her very first match in Australia, have left against one of the fittest women in tennis?
In the early stages, it looked as though Halep could not live with the vastly improved serving and offensive tactics of Wozniacki. The Romanian was broken in the second game, and looked just a pace behind Wozniacki through the longer rallies. The Dane hit cleanly, with depth, precision and energy-sapping change of direction, and took a 4-1 lead.
But Halep is nothing if not a fighter, and she hustled and bustled the baseline as Wozniacki served for the first set, moved in for two bold swing volleys, and drew a couple of tentative replies to get the break back.
Each woman served to love as they headed to a tie-break, but Wozniacki then upped her intensity again to open a 4-1 lead, and served out the set, 7-6(2).
As the match moved to one hour, Halep again looked vulnerable in the third game, but she would edge a dramatic hold after facing four break points. However, her efforts were sapping the legs in the hot and humid conditions, so hot and humid that the tournament’s Extreme Heat policy could be invoked. Halep, then, had plenty of incentive to battle through a dizzy spell, during which medics checked her blood pressure, and keep the match alive.
The brief medical delay seemed to take the wind from Wozniacki’s sails just enough for Halep to make her breakthrough, 5-3, with a winning forehand. Yet closing out the set became another battle, four deuces, three break-back chances, but Halep held to level the match, 6-3. She had been rewarded for the more attacking play, now up to 28 winners to her opponent’s 19.
After the two women had enjoyed 10 minutes off court to recover, Wozniacki, looking by far the fresher of the two, once again came out swinging, and pounded too many second serves by Halep: 2-0. The Romanian, though, was not about to let this get away from her. She punished the Dane through a 10-minute game and five break points, through a blistering 23-shot rally and a couple of searing forehand winners, to finally draw a double fault for the break.
The tightness in their legs was clear: neither could make inroads with their serve, and each was duly punished. Three more breaks followed, and that gave Halep the lead for the first time in the match, 4-3.
This time, it was Wozniacki who called for a medical time out to strap a sore knee. Halep surely made a tactical error in hovering around the back of the court, neither occupying body or mind with some racket swings or ball knocks. Whatever the reason, her intensity level dropped, Wozniacki broke again, and held confidently to regain the advantage.
Halep looked drained, her serve made little impact—she now made her only double fault of the match—and after Wozniacki had run her ragged for a final break point, the game was up. Halep netted one last backhand, and the first Dane ever to win a Major collapsed to the court in tears, the scoreboard showing 6-4 after two hours 49 minutes.
It had been a final worthy of the two great battlers, two outstanding athletes, and two of the most liked women in tennis. But for one, Wozniacki, it was a double victory, a first Major and the No1 ranking, for the other a double defeat—the big title had eluded Halep once more, and with it her hard-fought reign at No1.
It goes without saying that both were equally gracious in winning and losing. First Halep:
“It is not easy to talk now… Of course I am sad, but Caroline was better than me. I started the tournament not very well with an ankle injury and just wanted to do my best, and I did. I fight, and have many years to go, so hopefully will face another challenge like today.”
By the time she came to press, she had recovered a little of her infectious optimism:
“I can still smile. It’s fine. I cried, but now I’m smiling. Is just a tennis match in the end. But, yeah, I’m really sad I couldn’t win it.
“After the first set, I just was out. No energy, no power. But then I just said that I have to hit all the balls, and then I could take the second set. I came back in the third set, but when I had to serve for 5-3, the gas was gone… I’m sad that I lost the match, I was not the winner. But, you know, life goes on.”
For Wozniacki, the evening would go on for many hours through media and photo calls, but before the celebrations with her loved ones, it was champagne in her press conference, and her own dose of pragmatism:
“To be honest with you, regardless, I think I’ve had an incredible career. The end of the day, I think a lot of people would like to be in my position. Honestly, nobody knows how much work, dedication you put into it.
“All I could tell myself was, ‘You know what, you’ve given it everything you have. If it’s going to happen, it’s going to happen. If not, then at least you know you’ve given it everything and you can be proud of any achievement. Obviously adding a Grand Slam to my CV is what caps it off.”
She had earlier apologised for denying Halep, but many will hope—and expect—that the Romanian’s turn will come, and perhaps in around four months’ time at the tournament where she has already lost two finals: Roland Garros. Whether or not, however, she too can always be proud of her achievements.
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