And Then There Were Two: Halep And Wozniacki Have Their Eye On The Prize

WASHINGTON, January 25, 2018 (by Michael Dickens)

The Australian Open women’s singles final between No. 1 seed Simona Halep of Romania and No. 2 Caroline Wozniacki of Denmark, the current and former No. 1 players in the world, will be hard pressed to match Thursday’s memorable “instant classic” semifinal between Halep and 2016 AO champion Angelique Kerber. Match points were saved on either side of the net – the second time this week alone for the World No. 1 – and Halep won 9-7 in the dramatic decider to book a spot in her third major final.

However, make no mistake. Both Halep and Wozniacki – who also saved match points during what has been an adventurous fortnight for each – have their eye on the prize of winning a first Grand Slam title, which will be awarded to winner of the Australian Open final on Rod Laver Arena Saturday night. Both players have paid their dues, and the fans who pack RLA to witness in person or sit picnicking on the Melbourne Park grounds watching it on a big screen will be rewarded with the first women’s Grand Slam final of a No. 1 versus No. 2 seed since Serena Williams and Maria Sharapova met in the 2015 Australian Open final.

If Halep, twice a major finalist, doesn’t go out and get a win, Wozniacki will return to No. 1 and be on top of the women’s tennis world for the first time in six years. And, it will likely spark this debate: Will the Australian Open runner-up, either Halep or Wozniacki, be the best player ever not to win a Grand Slam?

Nothing like a little bit of pressure, right?

Wozniacki is a very popular ray of sunshine among modern-day athletes, with a great attitude and, it seems, always with a smile on her face. She’s well-spoken, and popular with her fellow players and fans. Now, Wozniacki is back in a major final, thanks to her 6-3, 7-6 (2) semifinal win over the surprising Elise Mertens of Belgium. Perhaps, she erased some of her disappointment on Rod Laver Arena when she lost in the 2011 Australian Open semifinals to Li Na of China with match point on her racket.

“Wozniacki has had so many disappointments in majors; she was a former No. 1 in the world. For her to be back in a major final, after two U.S. Open finals is tremendous,” said ESPN analyst Pam Shriver, in commenting about Wozniacki following the completion of the first semifinal on Thursday.

When she was asked afterward to describe her feelings after advancing to the finals with her semifinal win, Wozniacki said, “It means so much to me. … I just tried to stay calm and I got a win.” During her on-court interview with Rennae Stubbs, I found it a bit of a surprise to hear Wozniacki reveal she had been suffering with nerves as she closed in on her victory over Mertens. And, yet, she was refreshingly honest.

“I’ve been here before and you learn every time being here,” said Woziacki. “The nice thing about being first on is you can sit back and relax and watch the others get it on.”

Wozniacki described her next opponent, Halep, as “an incredible player and fighter, and athlete.” She said, “It’s going to be difficult (to win), but at this point it’s the last match.”

Meanwhile, it has been an emotional roller-coaster of a ride for the top-seeded Halep to reach the AO finals. After surviving near back-to-back losses and turning her ankle in the early rounds, she’s regrouped with some solid wins, including overcoming three match points during a marathon (15-13 in the third set) third-round win over American Lauren Davis. Then, Halep followed with consecutive straight-set victories over Naomi Osaka of Japan and No. 6 seed Karolina Pliskova of the Czech Republic in the fourth round and quarterfinals, respectively, which set up her epic semifinal against the No. 21 seed Kerber.

After rallying to beat the German, 3-6, 6-4, 9-7, in the second semifinal on Thursday, in which she finally sealed the outcome by converting on her fourth match point, Halep said during her on-court, post-match interview: “It was definitely very tough. I am shaking now. I am really emotional. I knew it would be very tough; she’s moving well and hitting from everywhere. I am really glad I could resist and win this match.”

The Halep-Kerber semifinal had every emotion imaginable to it. To go from 5-0 Halep after just 13 minutes to a 16-game final set was remarkable. Halep finished with 50 winners. It prompted David Law of BBC 5 Live, who witnessed the match, to share this thought about it afterward. “All hell broke loose. That third set was one of the most dramatic sets I’ve ever seen,” he said on his daily The Tennis Podcast in conversation with Eurosport’s Catherine Whitaker. “Both players had match points. Rallies that looked like they ended four times each. They were still digging balls out of the corners and moon-balling back and then driving. … It had everything, it really did.”

Looking back over the fortnight, in leading up to a match-up between No.1 and No. 2, the women’s draw has been the gift that keeps on giving. We’ve been blessed with plenty of treats during the journey – and, certainly, we saw that Kerber has rediscovered the gift of her talents that went missing last year as well as her love of the game. Along the way, there’s been plenty of drama, a bit of chaos, a plethora of talent on display and, most of all, lots of heart. Come Saturday night, it will be something special to see Halep or Wozniacki crowned a Grand Slam champion for the very first time.

Notes: Caroline Wozniacki leads Simona Halep in their career head-to-head with four wins against two defeats, and she has won each of the last three meetings, including in the 2017 WTA Finals during round-robin play. The series is tied 2-2 on hard courts.

About the author

Michael Dickens is a Washington, D.C.-area freelance journalist who writes and blogs about tennis.