With so much on the line, the Australian Open Women’s Final was bound to be a thriller and so it proved, with the World’s No 1 and 2 vying for the top spot and their first piece of Grand Slam silverware.
After just short of three hours of mighty battle, it was Caroline Wozniacki who won the day over Simona Halep in a thrilling contest in three gruelling sets.
It is a dream come true, I’m just taking a second here to hug Daphne. To be here today is a dream come true. It’s a very emotional moment. The fans have been incredible all week, thanks everybody for coming out and supporting us. It’s been an incredible two weeks. Thank you Caroline Wozniacki
Halep has spent most of the past year conquering her demons and making her way to pinnacle of the game, while Wozniacki, too, has re-invented herself to become a major force to be reckoned with after a dramatic dip in form.
Both saved match points en route to the championship match, marking the first time in the Open Era, that has happened to both finalist at a Grand Slam.
Wozniacki led their head-to-head 4-2 going into the final, the Dane having won their two most recent encounters, at the 2017 WTA Finals and in Eastbourne in 2017.
She was the faster out of the blocks getting off to a fast start, racing into a 3-0 and 4-1 lead with some powerful serving and stunning baseline rallying before Halep checked her with some dogged determination to narrow the gap.
The signs were ominous as every time Woznicki went short, Halep punished her, and the Romanian was deadly at the net.
Although the Dane held for 5-2 as Halep struggled to get her first serve firing, the Romanian clung on and managed to create three break points as Wozniacki wobbled.
It was the start of a great fight-back, with Halep clawing her way to level at 5-5 when both held serve into the tiebreak.
At just past 8pm local time and still a humid and sticky 31C, Wozniacki’s transformation from a brilliant defender into an aggressive player, backed up by a newly-found big serve and a punchier forehand came to the fore as she carved her way to a 4-1 lead in the breaker.
Landing her first serves and pushing Halep all over the court, Wozniacki only dropped one further point before securing the opener, 7-2.
Halep had been broken in her first service game to go down a quick 2-0 and Wozniacki hadn’t faced any pressure on her serve until the ninth game when she went down 0-40 and faced triple break point.
The Romanian then converted the break to make it 4-5 when Wozniacki floated a forehand long but once Wozniacki went ahead in the tiebreak, winning the last three points, she had won her first set in a Grand Slam final.
In the second, a mammoth third game on Halep’s service could have gone either way, but the Romanian saved four break points to prevail.
Then, at 3-2 up, she called for medical attention after complaining of dizziness, and her blood pressure was taken.
After several minutes of treatment, she resumed the set but it was clear she was struggling with the humid conditions and trying to reduce the length of the gruelling rallies and the strategy paid off.
She has been nursing an ankle injury throughout the tournament, but despite looking sluggish between points, Halep got the all-important break in the next game to lead 4-2 and then served for the set at 5-3.
Wozniacki saved two set points and had three break points of her own, but could not save the set.
With over 50 percent humidity, the heat rule was in place and the players took a 10-minute break.
A refreshed Wozniacki regained her aggression and gained a 3-0 lead in the decider but after four breaks in a row Halep was trailing her 2-3 and she was broken to be pegged back again at 3-3.
She held a break point in the next game and broke to love to move ahead 4-3.
Wozniacki called for the trainer with a knee issue at the sit-down and took some pain killers and an ice towel as her left knee was taped.
Some brilliant baseline rallying had both scurrying from corner to corner in the gruelling conditions, both tanks nearing empty and yet they fought on, no capitulation here.
Wozniacki conjured up another break point, which Halep saved bravely at the net with a high drive volley.
Again the Dane drove her hard to garner a second chance and forced a rare error into the net from Halep off a deep drive to the baseline to level at 4 games all.
After two hours and forty minutes, the chips were truly down as each sought to stretch the other beyond their limits.
Wozniacki fought to 40-15 and held after Halep drove into the net to go up 5-4, the pressure now building on the Romanian.
‘Refuse to lose’ is Halep’s mantra but an error and double fault did not aid her cause and the next rally proved how versatile and determined the Dane has become in an amazing array of shots to pull up match point for Wozniacki.
Somehow, she clung on in the next rally until, finally, Halep netted the ball to give up her ambitions, the disappointment huge for her.
“It’s not easy to talk now but first I want to congratulate Caroline, she played amazing. It’s been a great tournament for me. I started not very well with an ankle injury, but I just wanted to give my best every match, which I did,” Halep said after the match.
“Of course I’m sad I couldn’t win today, but Caroline was better than me.
“But of course I’ll fight, and I have many years to go so hopefully I will face another challenge like I did today. Thank you guys for supporting me every day in this tournament. It’s always nice to play in front of you and hopefully I’ll see you next year, in the same position.”
“I hope next time will be fourth time lucky,” Halep joked at the end of her on-court speech. The Romanian will drop to No 2 in the world.
For Wozniacki, who collapsed on the court and burst into tears, it was the achievement of a lifetime, winning her first Grand Slam title and regaining her World No 1 ranking, winning through 7-6(2) 3-6 6-4 in two hours and forty-nine minutes of glorious tennis.
It has been 50 years since Billie Jean King won the Australian Open on the grass at Kooyong, and has since trail-blazed the cause of women’s professional tennis so successfully, so it was fitting that she was present for Wozniacki, who is a great supporter of the WTA.
“It is a dream come true,” said Wozniacki in her post-match speech. “I’m just taking a second here to hug Daphne.
“To be here today is a dream come true. It’s a very emotional moment.
“The fans have been incredible all week, thanks everybody for coming out and supporting us. It’s been an incredible two weeks. Thank you.
“I also want to congratulate Simona. I know today is a tough day. I’m sorry that I had to win, but I’m sure we’ll have many matches in the future. It was an incredible match, an incredible fight, and again I’m sorry.
“I also want to thank my fiancee (NBA ace David Lee). I was a nervous wreck this morning but you managed to calm me down,” Wozniacki said in her trophy acceptance speech.
Having seen her ranking dip to world No 74 in 2016 through injuries, Wozniacki, 27, will now return to the top of the WTA leaderboard on Monday, leapfrogging her opponent.