The 2018 Australian Open’s women’s singles final was not just a tennis match. It was so much more, even before it began on Saturday.
For Caroline Wozniacki, it was a chance to finally put the hoodoo of being the best player to not win a Grand Slam to rest. She had reached the US Open final in 2009 and 2014, and had first become number one back in 2010.
For Halep, it was something similar. Like her opponent, she has reached three Grand Slam finals as well, without moving past the runner-up trophy. But she had become the No 1 only last year, despite her heartbreak in the French Open final.
But as the match progressed, the clash of skill and wills became even more heated. It was a roller coaster ride, a gladiatorial battle, a scrap, a hustle, and a test of survival of the fittest. It wasn’t just a test of skills and talent and fitness and temperament, this was a battle of willpower, character, courage and grit.
This was tennis at its very extreme, and best. Both players needed medical attention on court, there was even a 10-minute break induced by the heat rule.
In the end, only one was left standing, or rather flat on the ground as Woznicali broke into tears with her hands covering her face. On the other side of the court, Halep had her face covered with a towel. Both were overcome with emotion, and exhaustion. They had been fighting it out for two hours and 50 minutes in humidity was such that the players were forced to take a break, in a final that was spectacle of the limits sport can push one to.
Wozniacki had clinched the Daphne Akhurst Memorial Cup 7-6 (7/2), 3-6, 6-4. But take a closer look and you’ll see that in the end only two points separated the victor and the runner-up.
That is how fine margins were in this battle of a tennis match. And when it came to that little extra, it was Wozniacki with a strapped knee that pulled it off.
A rollercoaster ride
In the clash of the top-two seeds, the Dane hit the ground running early, breaking Halep in her very first service game. There were too many errors from the top seed and Wozniacki fired up her big first serve and bigger winners to race to a 5-3 lead.
She was in a comfortable position, serving for first set. And then Halep found her groove, broke her and ultimately took the set to a Tiebreak. She, then, momentarily disappeared and Wozniacki ran through the tiebreaker to win 7-2, converting the first of her four set points.
The second set saw an even grittier fight with the third game producing some stunning counter-punching as Halep saved four break points.
This was the world No 1 who had played out a 4-6, 6-4, 15-13 epic against Lauren Davis, saving three match points to come back from the brink in only the second round. This was the athlete who had gunned down Angelique Kerber in a draining semi-final battling through 9-7 in the third set, saving match points.
This was the player who had spent close to 12 hours on court before the final and needed a medical timeout and had her blood pressure taken and medicines given in the second set.
But Halep channelled some of that nerve instilled by coach Darren ‘Killer’ Cahill and found a hidden reserve of energy grind her way into the second set. In the only break point she got in the set, she broke Wozniacki and forced a decider.
The Romanian went for the lines, tried to keep the points short and even clutched her thigh between points. At the same time, it felt like Wozniacki was dropping her intensity and focus, perhaps distracted by the break. She was missing forehands far too often, wasn’t serving as she did in the first – the result, she failed to convert seven break opportunities.
Coup de grace
But then came the third set, the coup de grace, the final hustle of this epic. There seven breaks of serve in the 10 games – only 3 holds. There was heavy artillery fired from both ends. There were walls of defence and there was one woman standing.
Game 1: Deuce, but Wozniacki just about holds.
Game 2: Wozniacki gets the big, early break, forcing the error count. Is this going to be decisive?
Game 3: No, because Halep has broken back in the “game of the match”
Game 4: Wozniacki breaks Halep to love
Game 5: Halep has broken back, again. Wozniacki’s forehand fumbles, firsts serve stutters.
Game 6: First hold of the set for Halep, a quick one. Is this going to be the decisive moment?
Game 7: Could be, because Halep breaks and takes the lead for the first time in the decider.
Wozniacki needed a medical timeout of her own after going down what was seen as the decisive break. She had her knee looked at. She returned and did not lose another game.
Game 8: Wozniacki breaks back. More unforced errors from Halep.
Game 9: Wozniacki holds. Is this going to be decisive?
Game 10: It does! Incredible hitting, punching, a terribly-timed double fault from Halep, a stunning rally, a superb winner from Wozniacki, a fatal error from Halep and the first Dane to win a Grand Slam
As she clutched “Daphne” and gave an emotional winners speech, one couldn’t help but remember all the times you thought “this was Wozniacki’s tournament”, or that “Wozniacki was done for good.” Both thoughts were justified, for such has been the career of the Dane who rose to the world No 1 spot when she was just 20. Only last year, she had to quell rumours that she was giving up the sport. Countless times she had to face questions about her personal life and style.
She had won a total of 27 titles before this, but the biggest of them came only in late 2017 – the all-important WTA finals in Singapore. Before that, she lost six finals in the year. In 2016, she was ranked as low as 74.
Now, she will set a new record for the longest gap between stints at the top since computerised rankings were introduced in 1975, overtaking good friend Serena Williams’s record of five years and 29 days.
In the end, the final was a fitting conclusion to the immensely entertaining and very competitive women’s singles tournament at Melbourne Park. A sporting Halep said at her press conference, “it is just a tennis match in the end”.
She will have another chance, one can hope. But for Wozniacki and women’s tennis, it is going to be so much more.