On the flight to Melbourne, I watched an in-flight movie that just happened to be Battle of the Sexes, the 2017 film directed by Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris, based on the infamous 1973 tennis match between Bobby Riggs and Billie Jean King (played by Steve Carrell and, quite admirably, Emma Stone.) In the movie, Jack Kramer (played by Bill Pullman,) co-founder and first Executive Director of the ATP, said men and women could not be paid equal prize money because women’s matches were clearly not as competitive or entertaining.
Wonder what Kramer would have thought of this year’s Australian Open. The women’s matches have not just lived up to the men’s, but indeed surpassed them in terms of drama and competitiveness. Both finalists on the women’s side have saved multiple match points and clawed back from the brink of defeat to be the last two standing on Saturday.
They also have a few other things in common: Both are playing their very first Australian Open final. Both will be playing their third Grand Slam final overall. Both will try to prove, to everyone but above all to themselves, that they can win a Major after all. And both of them will also be playing for the world No 1 ranking.
The woman who currently holds that spot, Simona Halep of Romania, has been responsible for much of the drama in this year’s competition on the women’s side.
The second women’s semifinal on Thursday pitted the top seed against former champion Angelique Kerber. It always had the potential to be a close match, but, having won here before and having demolished Madison Keys in the quarterfinal, the German went in as a slight favorite against the Romanian who, despite coming pretty close on a few occasions, has conspicuously failed to win a Grand Slam yet.
The match lived up to its potential and then some. Halep led by a set and a break before conceding the second set, taking the match to another decider.
In the third round, she saved three match points to beat opponent Lauren Davis 15-13 in the third set. In the semi-final, she saved two more match points against a resurgent Kerber to finally prevail 6-3 4-6 9-7.
The final set was a see-saw battle with each player failing to convert a couple of match points. Halep has played with an ankle injury all fortnight, while Kerber just looked winded towards the end. In the fourth round, she had been pushed to three sets by Su-Wei Hsieh of the Chinese Taipei, who was cheered on loudly by the Aussie crowds. The atmosphere in that match was extremely tense.
The semifinal was no different. The Channel 7 commentary team said it was the most electric atmosphere ever seen in a women’s match with no clear favorite. I was watching the match live on the giant screen in Federation Square, outside Melbourne Park, along with a large crowd. Most of them rose – and roared – in delight every time Kerber won a point.
In the third set, both players dug deep, scrambling to reach impossible angles and hitting back winners when they looked completely out of the points. Every time someone might have predicted a winner, the other player fought back. The match swung like a pendulum. After Kerber finally hit a shot out to give Halep the match, the world No 1 said she admitted she was “a rollercoaster” out there.
Kerber has nothing to be ashamed of. She’s had a terrific January Down Under. But for now, it’s Halep who makes it to her third Slam final, the first here in Australia. At 26, she has hovered near the top for several years, and come close on several occasions. Experts have attributed her failure to win a major to a lack of killer instinct, a mental fragility that stops her short of the finish line. But her coach, former Aussie player, “Killer” Darren Cahill, is a wise and sensible man.
Will the Marathon Woman of this year’s Aussie Open finally win her first Major under his tutelage? The answer will depend on how much she has left in the tank after two epic matches, and also on Dane on the other side of the net who is very likely going to be the crowd favorite.
You know the lyrics, “There should be sunshine after rain” from the Dire Straits song? Caroline Wozniacki’s had some well-publicised rain in her life. But luckily, her nickname – Sunshine – is back in her life, and boy has it been on display of late. If any player could write a compelling memoir before turning 30 or winning a Grand Slam, that would be Wozniacki.
Six years ago, she was on top of the world. She earned the popular nickname for lighting up the courts with her fresh, blond appeal and dazzling smile. The child of professional athletes – her parents played football and volleyball respectively for their national teams – Caro rose to prominence by reaching the US Open final in 2009. The following year, she won six WTA titles, the most of anyone on the tour, and a total of 61 matches.
Her consistency helped her attain the number one ranking that year. In fact, the Danish girl was number one for 67 weeks. But Wozniacki was a number one without a Grand Slam. Experts attributed her failure to win a Major to a lack of any big weapon. Her game was solid and essentially defensive. But it was not enough.
It was right here at the Australian Open six years ago that Wozniacki relinquished her number one ranking after a quarterfinal loss to Kim Clijsters. Over the next few years, she was overshadowed – and overpowered – by veterans like Clijsters, Li Na and Serena Williams as well as by women who broke through to win their first Majors, such as Petra Kvitova, Victoria Azarenka, Garbine Muguruza, and Kerber.
When a couple of years later, her then fiance, British golfer Rory Mcllroy, famously ended their high-profile engagement by way of what was rumored to be a seven-minute phone call, her personal woes added to her ongoing professional slump. The sunshine had definitely dimmed.
And yet here she is, about to play her first Australian Open final, and her third Grand Slam final overall. Towards the end of last season, she came from nowhere to begin a resurgence of her own. She won the season-ending WTA final in Singapore beating Venus Williams. A few days later, she announced her engagement to her “soulmate,” NBA star David Lee, on Twitter, alongside a picture of her rather large diamond ring. The sunshine is back from behind the clouds. It’s about time too.
At the Australian Open this month she escaped defeat in the very first round, coming back from a set down and saving two match points to beat Croatia’s Jana Fett. After beating Belgian Elise Mertens in the semifinal, Wozniacki said, “They knock you down, you come back up.”
On Saturday, one of these two ladies will have defeated not only an opponent on the other side of the net but a few demons as well. The world’s No 1 player takes on the No 2 player. Hopefully both will be fresh enough to provide another long, tough match. Either way, a new, poignant narrative is about to be written. Let’s just say it: there’s more at stake here than in the men’s final. Wish Jack Kramer were here among the fans to hear them roar.