Wozniacki (left) and Halep (right)

Joel Drucker: Similarly Seeking Slam, Wozniacki & Halep Reach Career-Defining Final

MELBOURNE—Amnesia and memory. A pair of contradictory attributes, vying for cooperation within the minds of Simona Halep and Caroline Wozniacki, the two women who today advanced to this year’s Australian Open final.

Or better yet, is the struggle between forgetting and remembering less about holding these two together, and more about putting each in its place at the appropriate moments? And as these two have demonstrated all tournament, the heart plays its role too.

Consider the remarkable symmetry Halep and Wozniacki will bring to Saturday night’s final. Each has reached two Grand Slam singles finals and emerged empty each time. Each in Australia has faced match points; for Halep, in two different matches. Each has been ranked number one in the world.Whoever wins will occupy that spot come Monday morning. The stage is set for a Grand Slam result of a deep significance.

For a great deal of Wozniacki’s match versus Elise Mertens, she had little reason to worry. Sustained length from the ground, combined with an improved serve and her trademark foot speed, carried Wozniacki to the first set, 6-3, in 39 minutes.

Mertens made little impression. Amid the high stakes of her first Grand Slam semi, the Belgian’s forehand, a shot she likes to hit quite flat, revealed its technical brittleness, often decelerating and lining its way into the net. Wozniacki broke early in the second and then, at 3-2 and 4-3, held at love in both games.

We may be through with the past, goes the line, but the past isn’t through with us. Seven years ago, in the 2011 Australian Open semis, Wozniacki had been up by the same score versus Li Na—6-3, 5-4—earned a match point, and lost the match.

Seeking to avoid that fate against Mertens, Wozniacki went up 30-love and aggressively struck a forehand down the line that a challenge revealed was out by millimeters. On two of the next three points, Wozniacki double-faulted.

In rapid time, Wozniacki was serving at 5-6, 15-40. She’d lost 11 of 12 points. But then, in the kind of 180 degree switch that would mark both semis, Wozniacki laced a crosscourt backhand for a winner, another penetrating backhand to get back to deuce and finally, after four deuces total, took the set into a tiebreaker. From that stage, Wozniacki pressed Mertens with solid footwork and plenty of height and depth off the ground, taking the tiebreaker, 7-2.

It’s hard to believe that come Monday, it will have been six years to the week since Wozniacki last held the number one ranking. Over the last half-decade, she has gone from a precocious possibility to a tennis version of a middle child. As recently as late August 2016, injuries and sub-par play had lowered her ranking to No. 74 in the world.

Amid Wozniacki’s roller-coaster journey through the rankings, what’s been overlooked is the Dane’s fidelity to tennis. For all the story lines fueled by sturm and drang—burnouts and parents and coaches and greed—Wozniacki’s tennis odyssey shows there’s something to be said for sustained engagement through thick and thin.

“I don’t think I believe in luck,” said Wozniacki. “But I believe in preparation and effort. I believe if you really put everything into it, eventually things are going to go your way.”

Halep likely doesn’t believe in luck either, probably because in so many of her matches, she rarely seems able to generate any on her behalf. How the gods torture this woman from Romania. Or more accurately, how she puts herself through the fire—never for lack of will, but in those dark moments, for lack of skill.

Halep’s 6-3, 4-6, 9-7 semifinal win over Angelique Kerber was yet another case where she’d grabbed the opponent by the throat and repeatedly let possibilities slip through her fingers. The first five games of first set took 15 minutes, Halep winning them all. She then lost 12 of the next 13 points, and though she’d win the set, 6-3, Kerber at this point surely now felt she could sink a tooth or two into the match.

But, in commando-like fashion, Halep patrolled the court. The depth and penetration Halep attains when she’s playing freely is admirable. A fluid Halep strikes early, with her whole body, committed off both sides.

What she lacks is the ability to navigate the transition area. Not particularly skilled at hitting approach shots, scarcely familiar with the net, owner not of an overhead but of a swing volley, these profound limitations force Halep to rely too much on power from the ground than a wider and potentially easier array of point-ending options.

But it hardly mattered as she took a 3-1 lead in the second set—the same lead she’d held versus Jelena Ostapenko in the finals of last year’s French Open. That break vanished.

Halep served at 4-all, 40-30. Kerber, an aggressor disguised as a counterpuncher and moonlighting as an artist, hit a drop shot return. Halep steered a backhand long. For inexplicable reasons, Halep pounded away at the Kerber forehand which, per usual, the German either arced crosscourt for safety and, most productively, down-the-line for winners. Kerber broke, then served it out at 5-4. “I gave everything,” said Kerber. From my notebook: Kerber stole that set.

For all that happened in the first two sets, what will take this match into the Australian Open pantheon was the third set, a 69-minute epic highlighted by each player holding double match point. As usual, Halep took the hard way. It would have been too easy for her to serve it out while leading 5-3, 30-0. But Halep did reach 15-40 on Kerber’s serve in the next game. Kerber erased one match point with a down-the-line backhand winner. On the next, Halep drove a backhand long.

Kerber held the edge in versatility, be it with the occasional drop shot, judicious moonball and, constantly in the ad court, a one-two combination of a slow and low wide serve, followed by a down-the-line forehand. A befuddled Halep usually stood too far back and not far enough into the ad court alley to take charge of the point.

And when Kerber broke Halep at 5-all, the ghost of meltdowns past surfaced courtside like something out of a Ingmar Bergman movie. Serving at 6-5, 30-15, Kerber boldly struck a serve down the T that surprised Halep, eliciting a short return that Kerber clobbered for a near-winner. Two match points.

Now it was Kerber’s turn to wither. A long forehand on the first. Then, for one of the few times all match, Kerber struck a forehand meagerly, giving Halep the chance to snap up the point and eventually knot it at 6-all.

With no tiebreaker in decisive sets here, the two fought on. At 7-8, Kerber looked weary. Halep’s fitness was making a difference. The Romanian went up love-30. But again, why take the easy route? Two backhand returns off weak serves flew long. At 30-all, Halep controlled the entire point and, per usual, declined to come forward—but won it anyway to earn a third match point. Erased by a Kerber patented shot, the crosscourt backhand. But at deuce, Halep crushed a forehand, her 50th winner. On match point number four, Kerber drove a backhand long. Said Halep, “I feel happy. I feel proud that I could stay there and fight till the end. So it's a nice feeling.”

True to their personas, Wozniacki and Halep have had quite different experiences in their two Grand Slam finals. Wozniacki’s first came at the 2009 US Open. She was only 19, and though she lost in straight sets to Kim Clijsters, at heart it had been a fine ride.

“I have nothing to lose,” Wozniacki had said on that New York evening eight years ago. “I just need to go out there and try to do my best, and that's what I did.”

Five years later, having fallen out of the Top 10, a resurgent Wozniacki again made it to the last day of the US Open, in this case beaten by her good friend, Serena Williams. After losing that match, Wozniacki said, “Today I obviously would have loved to have won, but I didn't. Still a great two weeks.”

Words can hardly do justice to the anguish Halep has experienced after both of her runner-up efforts. The first had been an epic loss to Maria Sharapova in the 2014 Roland Garros final, Halep giving her all before losing, 6-4 in the third. Then came last year’s brutalizing defeat versus Ostapenko. And along the way, many other matches where Halep had faced two opponents—the one across the net, and herself.

The best forms of competition come when both players are equally invested, when the rewards are similarly great and the cost is similarly painful. That’s the case for Saturday night’s final, a match that figures to boil down not just to serves, but even more to nerves and that eternal battle between amnesia and memory. In the end, though, one will continue to doubt—and the other will have at last found deliverance.

Read more articles by Joel Drucker

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