Wozniacki and Halep played one of the best Oz finals of the Open era

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Caroline Wozniacki won her first Grand Slam title in her third major final, at the Australian Open. (AP)

As Caroline Wozniacki realized a lifelong dream by capturing the Australian Open in a harrowing three-set skirmish against Simona Halep, it called to mind the words of the esteemed journalist Pete Hamill. He once wrote, “The true athlete teaches us that winning isn’t everything, but struggle is—the struggle to simply get up in the morning or to see hope through the minefields of despair... In life, defeat and victory are inseparable brothers.”

Hamill’s outlook on sports and the larger game of life was exemplified by both Wozniacki and Halep throughout their long struggle for survival in one of the most hard fought and compelling women’s major finals I have seen over the past decade. In this 2:49 confrontation on Rod Laver Arena, the laudable Wozniacki secured the first set, dropped the second, built two significant early leads in the third, but ultimately had to rescue herself when she was twice six points from defeat in the final set. Wozniacki’s iron will, supreme discipline and extraordinary composure enabled her to stop a determined Halep, 7-6 (2), 3-6, 6-4.

The stakes for this first Grand Slam tournament final of 2018 were even more substantial than is normally the case on such occasions. Here was the No. 2 seed from Denmark colliding with the top seed from Romania. They were playing for the No. 1 world ranking. They were each fighting for their first major title after losing two previous finals at the Grand Slam events. Not since Victoria Azarenka toppled Maria Sharapova in the 2012 Australian Open title round contest had the No. 1 ranking been up for grabs in a final at a Grand Slam tournament.

Never before had a woman from Denmark secured a major title in singles, and the last time a Romanian woman came through at one of the majors was when Virginia Ruzici took the crown at Roland Garros back in 1978. In the case of Wozniacki, she was competing in her 43rd career major. Only three players—Flavia Pennetta, Marion Bartoli and Jana Novotna had appeared in more Grand Slam tournaments before making the breakthrough and claiming a first singles title. Halep, too, had been in pursuit of the most prestigious prizes for a very long time; this was her 31st major.

At the outset, Wozniacki was setting the tempo and ruling from the backcourt with uncanny ball control, depth and precision. She was utterly controlling the proceedings. The 27-year-old held at 15 in the opening game, and then broke Halep at 30 with three outright winners in that game—including two with her trademark two-hander down the line. Perhaps more than any other shot, the backhand down the line took Wozniacki into the victory column.

Wozniacki was up 2-0, and soon she held at 30 for 3-0 with a forehand crosscourt winner. Her mastery in the rallies was unassailable. Her cool authority was strikingly evident. In those first three games, she took 12 of 17 points. Halep found her bearings in the fourth game with a love hold. But the top seed was making almost no impression on Wozniacki’s serve as the Dane backed up her delivery convincingly on her way to a 5-2 lead. In four service games, Wozniacki had won 16 of 21 points with clean efficiency.

Yet Halep was not ready to concede the set. She held at 30 for 3-5. Serving for the set, Wozniacki was exceedingly tight. She drifted to 15-40, served an ace, but lost that game at 30 on a timid sliced forehand down the line that landed long. Halep was back in business. Now hitting out much more freely off the ground, serving with improved accuracy, covering the court with alacrity, Halep released two aces and held at love. To 5-5 she travelled.

Both players held to set up a tie-break. Halep seemed to have the momentum on her side of the net as she headed into that crucial sequence, but it was Wozniacki who was the far superior player. She opened with a forehand swing volley winner, and soon established a 2-0 tie-break lead. Halep took the next point but Wozniacki was unwavering. She moved methodically to 4-1, dropped the next point and then advanced to 5-2 with a well struck forehand down the line, followed by a backhand down the line. A hurried Halep missed off the forehand on the run. It was 5-2 for Wozniacki. She promptly took both points on her serve to win the tie-break 7-2. Wozniacki did not drop a point on her serve in the tie-break.

That first-set triumph put Wozniacki in an enviable position. In 42 of the previous 45 women’s major finals, the player who was victorious in the opening set was the winner of the match. But Halep fought with verve in the second set, and managed to save seven break points across a pair of service games to fend off a resolute Wozniacki.

Serving at 1-1 in that second set, Halep was down break point four times. Wozniacki missed a routine forehand return to squander one of those opportunities, but Halep was too good on the rest. She held on gamely for 2-1. A depleted Halep called for medical assistance after holding for 3-2, benefitting from an ice pack. She had her blood pressure examined, and looked weakened and disconcerted.

Nonetheless, the Romanian was stepping up the pace of her shots, dominating off her forehand side, and keeping Wozniacki largely at bay. With the Dane serving at 3-4, Halep pounced, breaking at 15 with a forehand winner up the line. Serving for the set in the ninth game, Halep remained physically vulnerable. She trailed 15-40, but a wide serve set up a crosscourt backhand winner. A forehand down the line winner lifted her to deuce. An apprehensive Wozniacki wasted a third break point with poor execution off the ground. After four deuces, Halep somehow held on despite looking disoriented for much of that game. She pocketed the set 6-3.

After both players left the court for a ten minute break permitted by the extreme heat in the arena, Wozniacki held in a deuce game to reach 1-0 in the final set. She was clearly trying to exploit her opponent’s obvious fatigue, looking to move Halep around ruthlessly, hoping to regain the ascendancy. Halep led 40-30 in the second game but was outplayed in a crosscourt forehand exchange. She garnered a second game point but Wozniacki was not to be denied. She broke for 2-0 with an excellent forehand return into the corner off a weak second serve from Halep. On the run, Halep was off the mark with a forehand down the line. It was 2-0 for Wozniacki.

The third game of the final set was critical. If Wozniacki could have held, she might well have soared to victory from there. Wozniacki rallied from 15-40 to game point, but Halep laced a two-hander down the line for a winner. After the Dane reached game point for 3-0 a second time, Halep’s directed a second serve return into the corner for a clutch winner. That game went to deuce no less than six times before Wozniacki lost her serve on a double fault.

Despite that strong stand, Halep was not very upbeat. She was broken at love in the following game. Once again, Wozniacki had a chance to widen her lead and demoralize a depleted Halep as she served at 3-1, but she faltered at this juncture, losing her serve at 15. She played that game with excessive caution. Halep exploited her opportunity. Serving at 2-3, 30-30, she aced Wozniacki out wide in the deuce court, and then took the next point with a deep crosscourt forehand that drew an errant lob from her opponent.

Improbably, Halep had made it back to 3-3. During the seventh game, Wozniacki alerted the umpire that she needed to see a trainer at the upcoming changeover. She rallied from 0-30 to 40-30, but missed her first serve and was coaxed into a backhand error on the stretch. A pair of unforced errors off the forehand cost Wozniacki that game. After twice being up a break in this suspenseful final set, Wozniacki was now down a break.

The trainer came out and applied some tape beneath her ailing left knee, and Wozniacki’s renewed vigor was immediately apparent after the three minute medical timeout. Yet Halep understood the importance of the eighth game of the final set. She came back from 0-30 to 30-30. Within six points of victory was Halep, but Wozniacki probed beautifully and drew an error off the forehand from her adversary. Halep put away a volley to reach deuce, once more—theoretically within six points of a first major title. But a brave Wozniacki drilled a backhand crosscourt, made a delayed approach to the net, and unhesitatingly sent a forehand swing volley into the clear for a winner. Now at break point, Wozniacki’s stinging forehand down the line forced Halep into a netted backhand. Back to 4-4 was a revitalized Wozniacki.

Serving in the ninth game, the Dane was thoroughly focussed on her way to a 40-15 lead. She double faulted on the following point, but held on at 30 by getting the better of Halep in a backhand to backhand exchange. Wozniacki had served her way out in front again, building a 5-4 lead, leaving Halep in another bind.

The Romanian’s deep fatigue was painfully apparent, but she never stopped competing. Serving to stay in the final, knowing precisely what she was up against, wanting at all costs to avoid a third career defeat in a major final, Halep got to 30-15 in the tenth game, only to double fault off the net cord. At 30-30, just when she needed it most, Wozniacki played perhaps her best defensive point of the long battle. She scampered from side to side as Halep dictated off the ground. Halep approached down the line off the forehand but an outstretched Wozniacki lofted a lob off the backhand down the line that backed up her opponent.

Halep was unable to put away her forehand drive volley as she retreated, but on her next shot the Romanian pulled Wozniacki well behind the baseline and off the court with a crosscourt backhand. Wozniacki magically produced a short-angled backhand crosscourt to open up the court in her favor. Now Halep was off the court and her backhand landed short, sitting up for Wozniacki, who moved forward swiftly and sent a forehand down the line for a winner behind Halep. It was championship point for Wozniacki, and she relied on her defense again to thwart Halep, who drove an easy two-hander into the net because the remarkable Wozniacki put up a wall on her side of the net and refused to miss:

And so Caroline Wozniacki had deservedly carved out the single most important triumph of her career. It was a classic final, but not quite an epic. Yet it was the best played Australian Open final I have seen since Jennifer Capriati upended Martina Hingis in 2002, when Capriati saved four match points to take the title in three sets with indomitable spirit. The only other Open Era finals Down Under that I would place above this one would be Martina Navratilova’s 6-7 (4), 6-4, 7-5 win over Chris Evert in 1981, and Monica Seles’s 4-6, 6-3, 6-2 victory over Stephanie Graf in 1993.

Wozniacki won this title the hard way, controlling the match early on and eventually salvaging the first set, losing the second set, and falling behind late in the third set before sweeping three games in a row for the crown when she seemed in jeopardy. Down the stretch, it was Wozniacki’s retrieving that helped her to succeed, but earlier her well measured aggression was the leading feature of her play.

Wozniacki is an entirely worthy Australian Open champion. Her professionalism and perspicacity carried her to the win. Meanwhile, Halep was an honorable runner-up. She was beaten, but Halep bowed out in style. She would do well to take heed of Hamill’s powerful words. Halep must remember that victory and defeat are indeed inseparable brothers. No one understands that notion better than Wozniacki.

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