MELBOURNE, Australia – No matter how the Australian Open women’s singles final ended Saturday night, one player was going to be devastated.
And the other would be over the moon, hugging Daphne.
It was a gripping match with umpteen changes of momentum. There was some great play, and some nervous play. After two weeks of a tough physical grind, the heat and humidity that lasted into the night was a factor.
No one in Rod Laver Arena or watching at home knew who the winner would be until the final moments. That no doubt included the players themselves. So the elation and the disappointment were only magnified by the suddenness with which it came upon them.
In the end, it was Caroline Wozniacki, 12 years into a hugely successful career that was lacking just that one piece of hardware, who earned the Daphne Akhurst Trophy as the newly crowned Australian Open champion.
And it was Romania’s Simona Halep who must continue to believe that her time to be a Grand Slam champion will also come one day.
The 7-6 (2), 3-6, 6-4 victory took two hours and 49 minutes. And if the tears the rarely emotional Wozniacki displayed in victory will be remembered so, too, will the grace shown by Halep as her tennis heart suffered a couple more nicks.
“She was better. And she was fresher. She had actually more energy in the end,” said Halep, who had a well-deserved cry afterwards but was more than composed by the time she came in for her press conference.
Back to No. 1 – with a twist
Wozniacki had spent more weeks than anyone as the No. 1 ranked player in the world – 67 – without winning that elusive first major.
Of all the narratives in tennis, the notion that a player’s career, one that includes all that time in the top spot and 28 titles, could be a disappointment by any measure might be the most ludicrous one. And yet, it has persisted.
But now, Wozniacki has firmly shut the door on it. You would hope.
“Honestly, I think that’s one of the most positive things about all of this. I’m never going to get that question again. I’m just waiting for the question, When are you going to win the second one?” she said. “Right now I’m just happy I have this one, and I’m going to really enjoy this moment.”
Not only is Wozniacki now a Grand Slam champion, she also will be back in the No. 1 spot on Monday – exactly six years after the last time she held that spot.
“I think it’s pretty incredible, and I think I need to take it in, realize what happened. I’m usually not an emotional person. So for me to start shaking and crying on court was pretty different for me,” Wozniacki said during one of the multiple live television interviews that followed the trophy ceremony.
“I knew today was either going to be an incredible day, or a day I was going to be really sad leaving the court. It was my day today.”
Second chances maximized
Both women saved match points to get to this final, meaningful showdown.
Wozniacki was almost out – should have been out, really – in the second round to Croatia’s Jana Fett. Somehow, from 5-1, 40-15 down in the third set she came back to win. It takes some luck, sometimes.
Halep nearly packed her bags twice.
Against Lauren Davis in the third round, she saved match points and won it 15-13 in the third set after three hours and 45 minutes. And then, in a blockbuster of a match against 2016 champion Angelique Kerber in the semifinals, she escaped again and won it 9-7 in the third set.
That was another gruelling two hours, 20 minutes’ worth of wear and tear on a body that was already battered, after Halep rolled her ankle in her first-round win over Australian wild card Destanee Aiava.
Her determination in getting all the way to the end seemed to presage that perhaps, just maybe, this might be her time, in her third Grand Slam finals attempt.
But to somehow decide who deserved it more, of the two women, is a debate for which there was no answer.
“I obviously feel very sad for her, but at the same time, you know, I’m very happy for myself. I can only imagine. But I didn’t want to think too much about how it would feel to win before the match because that’s like in case I don’t, it’s going to hurt even more,” Wozniacki said. “I’m sure she’s – it must be hard for her right now.”
Great start for Wozniacki
Wozniacki began the match looking every bit like a player who was going to go after the win, in a way she never had before.
But it lasted only a set, and after that, it was Halep, down in the score, who emerged the winner.
“After the first set, I just was out. I don’t know what happened. 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,” Halep said. “I came back in the third set, but when I had to serve for 5-3, the gas was gone, so I couldn’t make it. It’s a bit sad.”
Most of the points followed a similar pattern. Whichever player was able to get the other moving from corner to corner by changing the direction of the ball and going down the line got the advantage in the point. In the first set, Halep was doing most of the running. In the second, Wozniacki was the one defending. And that was out of necessity for Halep; given how she was feeling, she knew that she didn’t have the fuel to run her way to the title.
The heat and humidity meant that the rule for the women players allowing a 10-minute break before the third set, subject to one of the players making the request.
Wozniacki said it was Halep who asked for me. That wasn’t surprising, since the Romanian appeared to be close to cramping, and barely managed to serve the set out.
“I wasn’t going to take it, I thought maybe I can keep pushing on and she’ll be more tired than me,” Wozniacki said. “But once she did I thought, it could be good, to resettle, refocus.”
Halep wasn’t sure it helped.
“Was really good when I was staying in the air-conditioning in the locker room. But I feel that was a little bit too much and maybe cut me a little bit. But I needed it for the breathing, for the head, because I had headache during the match,” Halep said.
Physical battle to the end
Both took medical timeouts. For Halep, at 2-3 in the second set, it was more of a medical issue as she had her blood pressure checked and dealt with a headache and dizziness.
In the third, it was Wozniacki who had some tape applied below her left knee.
There were only three breaks of serve in the first two sets. By the third, survival time, there were six breaks in the first eight games.
After a fortnight in the heat, six previous matches, and with all that was at stake, it’s asking a lot for two players to produce their best tennis.
They didn’t, but they gave everything they have and all of their heart and desire.
“I was thinking, If I am tired right now, I know one of my strengths is my speed, obviously my fitness, I know she’s tired, too, so… Every time I was like, Oh, I can’t do this anymore, I’m exhausted, and we were playing all these crazy long rallies, I was thinking, Okay, I’m looking over there, she looks a little tired, she must be feeling the exact same way or maybe more tired than me,” Wozniacki said.
And in the end, on the final two points, it was Wozniacki’s well-polished defence and determination that won her the two biggest points of her life.
Heart kept beating, body wore out
And in the end, it wasn’t Halep’s nerves, or her mind, that got the best of her, it was her body.
“I felt ready. But the body was not ready because I had so many long matches. The muscles were tired. The feet were not good enough. But mentally I was ready. I feel that I can face any challenge. And I can play against anyone. I can win against anyone. But just sometimes is not how you want because you cannot physically do it,” she said.
Halep wanted to hit more winners, as she did against Kerber. She wanted to come to the net more. But the body wouldn’t allow it. Considering she practiced little more than 15 minutes a day the entire tournament because of the ankle – just enough to make sure she kept feeling the ball, the tennis was there.
“I‘m leaving Australia with many good thoughts and many positive things because what I’ve done these two weeks I never did, me, in the past. So it’s okay.”
Halep won’t be headed to the WTA Tour event in St. Petersburg, Russia next week, as scheduled. She’ll head home, have a series of MRIs not only on the ankle, but also on her feet. Her right foot, especially, has a swollen tendon and she said that also was causing her a lot of pain.
Wozniacki also is entered in St. Petersburg. There’s a pretty good chance that she, too, will take a pass and bring Daphne home.