MELBOURNE—As the top two ranked players in the world, Simona Halep and Caroline Wozniacki, entered Rod Laver Arena Saturday night to play the Australian Open final, all were aware of how binary and stark the certain outcomes were. For one, an answer cherished. For another, a question continued. That each is likeable, dedicated and quite persistent—each had faced match points this tournament, Halep in two separate matches—made what was to happen that much crueler to absorb.
But happen it did: ecstasy for one, agony for another. Over the course of one sultry Melbourne evening, Wozniacki had earned her first Grand Slam title and returned to the No. 1 ranking nearly six years to the day when she’d last held that spot. It had lasted eleven minutes shy of three hours, the 27-year-old Dane rallying from a break down in the third—Halep had served at 4-3—to win the last three games and ten of the last 14 points. Wozniacki had won, finally, 7-6 (2), 3-6, 6-4.
Near midnight, in the vastly empty player’s lounge, Wozniacki’s father and lifelong coach, Piotr, sat at a table with friend, conducting less of an overt celebration and more a peaceful moment of contentment. Piotr had just shaken hands with Billie Jean King, winner here 50 years ago, on hand this evening to award the trophy to the champion.
King was buzzing as only she can. “What a great match that was,” she said. “What an incredible pair of competitors those two are. It really was one of those matches where it’s a shame someone had to lose.”
All this Saturday, as the final neared, Wozniacki had been aware of the ticking of the clock. There had been nerves in the morning; but then, a peaceful nap, a 4:30 arrival at Melbourne Park. “Okay, five hours from now,” said Wozniacki, “we'll have a winner and we'll know what's happening. I was like, ‘OK, let's get the warmup going, get a sweat going.’ That kind of helped.”
Wozniacki had been the one in control early on. She broke Halep at 0-1 in the first set and displayed incremental improvements in the serve and forehand, as well as her familiar superb court coverage and rock-solid backhand.
As Halep would disclose in depth in her post-match press conference, the Romanian was a physical mess. “Yes, I felt ready,” said Halep. “But the body was not ready because I had so many long matches. The muscles were tired. The feet were not good enough.”
Serving for the set at 5-3, Wozniacki played a horrible game, her forehand disintegrating—into the net, wide, a moonball that smacked of desperation. Halep broke, and soon enough came the tie-breaker. With Halep serving the opening point, Wozniacki’s forehand returned to the party. She smacked one down-the-line with enough power to capture the mini-break.
Halep played wearily. With Wozniacki serving at 2-1, Halep swatted two returns long. With the cushion of a 4-1 lead, Wozniacki had the leverage and soon won the tiebreaker, 7-2. Fifty minutes had elapsed.
Neither of these two players serves or closes points out well enough (the overhead smash gone from endangered species to near extinction) to generate any sense of accelerated momentum. Though Wozniacki had commanded most of the first set and eventually closed it out, there was no evidence that she could now break the match open.
In fact, Halep was the one with more aptitude for taking away time, especially when she stepped into the court and cracked the ball off either side. It took a while, but Halep, so lacking energy throughout the first set, began in the second to pay more attention. With Wozniacki serving at 3-4, 15-30, Halep rocketed a forehand down-the-line to earn the break and, in a long deuce game that also included three break points, at last level the match. So hot was it this evening that the heat rule was in effect, providing the players with a ten-minute break following the second set.
Like a basketball game, the lead continued to change hands. As she had in the first set, Wozniacki again broke Halep at 0-1 and held points to take a 3-0 lead. Said Halep, “I feel that I can face any challenge. I can play against anyone. I can win against anyone.” On her sixth break point, Halep broke back, lost her serve again, broke Wozniacki’s, held.
Of the final set’s first six games, the server held but twice. At 3-3, Wozniacki regressed, backing off chances to move forward, the cavity of her forehand growing wider. Halep broke and stood eight points away from deliverance. Wozniacki summoned the trainer to examine her knee. Tennis: boxing at a distance.
In the six years since Wozniacki had held the No. 1 ranking, she’d become somewhat of a tennis version of a middle child. No longer the prodigy, lacking the Slam results to be a revered elder, Wozniacki had drifted off the tennis radar screen. As recently as the start of the 2016 US Open, she’d been ranked No. 74 in the world.
“I think I’ve just been through a lot of injuries at that point,” Wozniacki said. “Then you start losing to some players you’re not really thinking you should lose to. It’s frustrating.”
But as King also once said, “Persistence is a talent.” Don’t let Wozniacki’s friendly manner deceive you. If not as obvious as, say, Rafael Nadal, she too is very much a warrior.
ll this surfaced over the next three games, Wozniacki’s case aided by something in Halep that is incredibly difficult to put a finger on. She strikes the ball with such authority, patrols the court with withering accuracy, moves as well as anyone in contemporary tennis—and yet, she let Wozniacki escape to level the match at 4-all.
In that ninth game, Wozniacki rapidly reached 40-15, chucked in a doublefault and at 40-30, scampered around the court well enough to elicit a netted backhand from Halep. After two hours, 45 minutes, Halep served to stay in the match and soon went ahead 30-15. A second overtime effort in a row for Halep—she’d squeaked past Angelique Kerber, 9-7 in the third, in Thursday’s semi—seemed likely.
Then, three points that hastily and ruthlessly brought the pre-determined cruelty right to the surface. First, a double-fault. And then, at 30-30, a rally for the ages—one that may end up being the point of Wozniacki’s life. Halep pushed Wozniacki into one corner after another. Attempting to counter with a backhand, Wozniacki flung one crosscourt, the ball landing inside the service box but with such whip that it took Halep well off the court. All Halep could do with her reply was find the middle, making it easy for Wozniacki to crush a forehand winner.
The championship point was anti-climatic, Wozniacki keeping enough balls in play, Halep missing a backhand. If Halep’s firepower had given her the slight edge of skill, Wozniacki’s tenacity added up to more will.
“I can still smile,” said Halep “It’s fine. I cried, but now I’m smiling.”
Halep has now lost three Grand Slams, all deep in third sets, to a spectrum: seasoned veteran Maria Sharapova in the 2014 Roland Garros final, youngster Jelena Ostapenko last year in Paris, and now, to a peer with a very similar resume.
Wozniacki last year became engaged to the retired basketball player, David Lee. Engagement has long been the Dane’s strong suit, an underrated grit cloaked by her kindly demeanor.
“It just shows the big lesson,” said King. “Never, ever give up. The question is always this: Can I make it when it counts? Caroline stepped up. We’ve always known she could play defense. Now she can play offense.”
What did each finalist have planned next? For Halep, MRIs on both feet. For Wozniacki, not just a date with destiny, but a permanent romance with Daphne—the Daphne Akhurst Memorial Cup, awarded each year to the women’s champion.
Midnight would soon come, but the ball was far from over. As Wozniacki conducted her post-match press conference, the trophy on the table next to her, she asked, “She’s beautiful, isn’t she?”
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