There would be a first-time Grand Slam winner between the two long-time slamless players in the 2018 Australian Open final. And it was Caroline Wozniacki holding her nerve to win Saturday in Melbourne, in the process taking back the No. 1 ranking for the first time in six years.
The Woz triumphed 7-6(2), 3-6, 6-4, in steamy conditions in Rod Laver Arena that had both players battling fatigue and injuries and keeping the courtside trainers on their toes.
Both players would tell you they felt lucky to be there. Between them they fought off seven match points en route to the final, the first players to ever reach a Slam final with both staving off match points.
Wozniacki was 0-2 in career Slam finals, both at the US Open. Halep was 0-2 in Slam finals, both at the French Open.
It wasn’t about the WTA No. 1 ranking, which has become a meaningless merry-go-round of different faces in the absence of Serena Williams. Coming into Melbourne, six different players could have left as No. 1.
It was about leaving behind the tag “never won a Grand Slam.” That, and pocketing $4 million.
“I’ve dreamt of this moment for so many years and to be here today is a dream come true,” Wozniacki said. “My voice is shaky. I never cry, but today it’s a very emotional moment.”
Halep is now 0-3 in Slam finals, but you can’t say the loss was a career downturn. She fought through an ankle injury and cramping during the final, and smiled afterwards answering media questions. It was a decided 360 from her other Slam losses.
“I cried, but now I’m smiling,” said Halep, who with coach Darren Cahill and a solid team around her could yet win a first Slam in 2018. “It is just a tennis match in the end. I’m really sad I couldn’t win it. I was close again, but the gas was over in the end.”
ESPN commentator Chris Evert, 0-3 in her first three Slam finals, noted before the match that both players had set the basis for a strong 2018 campaign.
But time to address the elephant in the room — Serena Williams, who is set to make her WTA return from maternity leave at Indian Wells.
Wozniacki’s success has always coincided with Serena’s absences from the tour. The Dane first rose to No. 1 in 2010 when Serena didn’t play for almost four months after the Australian Open, then hung up her season after Wimbledon due to injury. The next year, 2011 when Wozniacki also finished the year No. 1, Serena due to injury didn’t play her first event until June, then after only six tournaments ended her year after the US Open.
In 2012 Victoria Azarenka’s breakout year saw the Belarussian finish the year No. 1. In 2013 Serena returned to full power, ending the year No. 1 in 2013, 2014 and 2015.
What does this all mean for Wozniacki, Halep, and the rest of the Slam hopefuls approaching the French, Wimbledon and US Open this year?
It means Serena wants what’s hers. Probably not No. 1 in 2018 after missing the first couple months, but Slam titles.
Her pal Wozniacki in the meantime can bask in the Australian Open sunlight. Serena after the final wrote on social media, “I got too nervous to watch but woke up to @CaroWozniacki new number one and aussie open champ. So awesome. So happy. Are those tears? Yup they are — from a year ago to today I’m so proud my friend so proud. Literally can’t even sleep now.”
It’s easy to be buds with a player you are 10-1 against. Serena is 8-1 against Halep.
The Indian Wells-Miami swing will be a big measurement of who is ready to compete for No. 1 in 2018, and who, if anyone, can hold off Serena Williams.
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