Melbourne | Wozniacki wobbles past Mertens to AO final
Caroline Wozniacki, the World No 2, arrived at her appointed place in the Australian Open final after surviving a mini crisis and dispelling her demons to see off the incredibly talented unseeded Elise Mertens.
The 2011 semi-final at Melbourne Park has haunted the former Danish World No 1, who failed to execute a match point in the second set before losing to eventual champion Li Na.
Serving for the match against Na in 2011 was definitely on my mind today, it was the most disappointing loss of my career so far, but I tried to stay calm and I was lucky to get the win. Caroline Wozniacki
Now Wozniacki, a two-time US Open runner-up, not only has a very good chance to win her first maiden Grand Slam but also of regaining her World No 1 status.
The 27-year-old had come back from the brink last week, from 5-1 down in the final set to avoid elimination against Jana Fett in the second round, and has led a charmed life since.
On her strongest run at a Grand Slam after upsetting fourth seed Elina Svitolina to reach the semi-finals of a major for the first time, Mertens may have looked somewhat overawed by the occasion but she had a game plan.
The 22-year-old, unbeaten in 10 matches in 2018, was bidding to reach a maiden major final in just her fifth career Grand Slam showing.
The Belgian, in her Australian Open debut, signalled her intent to attack from the start, standing inside the baseline to receive Wozniacki’s second serve.
It was a high-risk strategy and with Wozniacki repelling all the Belgian’s aggressive overtures, the errors began to flow at regular intervals from Mertens’ racket.
She was seeking to become the first Belgian since Kim Clijsters to reach a Slam final here in 2011, and she kept up the attack, fashioning a break point in the next game but Wozniacki stood up to the challenge and held for 4–1.
Serving at 2–5, Mertens saved a set point when Wozniacki went long with a forehand.
The Dane was unperturbed by the minor setback and held to love to seal a comfortable first set 6–3 after 38 minutes.
There was little between the pair in terms of winners in the first stanza, Wozniacki edging the count 13 to 12, but the unforced error count was telling, with the Dane committing just 6 while Mertens threw away 14 points.
It was the first set that Mertens had dropped at this year’s tournament.
Wozniacki struggled with her first serves as it dropped to as low as 33 per cent but survived, and looked to continue where she left off in the second set until Mertens produced a massive hold of serve in the opening game, rallying from 15-40 down.
The Belgian went toe-to-toe with Wozniacki in a much improved showing but she eventually came unstuck in the fifth game.
Two double faults enabled Mertens to level at 5–5, reeling off three successive games to take a 6-5 lead as Wozniacki faded with the finish line in sight.
“I got really tight at 5-4 [second set]. I felt like I was hitting against a wall,” a relieved Wozniacki said.
“Serving for the match against Na in 2011 was definitely on my mind today, it was the most disappointing loss of my career so far, but I tried to stay calm and I was lucky to get the win.
“Once she had set points, I said to myself ‘I guess it’s a third set,’ so I just had to go for it,” added Wozniacki, identifying her major experience as a key factor in comparison to the unseeded Belgian prodigy.
“It helped so much, I’ve been in these situations before. You learn how you feel and I also realised she was nervous too. I had to stay focused as best as possible.”
The Dane saved two set points to force an unlikely tiebreak, forced to illustrate her archetypal fighting qualities to take a nine-minute hold and then dictated the breaker, which she won at a canter, to lift her arms aloft in triumph.
“I think it’s been a great two weeks so far. I’m really happy and proud of how I’ve managed to turn things around when things weren’t going my way and keep it up whenever it was going my way. I’m just excited. Regardless of what happens now, I’ve done my best, have everything to win,” added Wozniacki with her unwavering determination.
The second seed won through, 6–3 7–6(2), in 1 hour 37 minutes after almost allowing the World No 37 a way back when seemingly in complete control.
“It means so much to me.” she said after reaching her maiden Australian Open final and her first Grand Slam decider since 2014, where she will play top seed Simona Halep, winner over the 2016 Melbourne Park champion Angelique Kerber, on Saturday.
“I got really tight at 5–4. I thought, ‘Calm down, it’s all good’ It wasn’t good anymore. Served a couple of double faults. Normally I am really calm so once I started feeling really nervous, it felt like my legs were shaking a bit. I just took a few deep breaths and once she had set point, I said: ‘Well, I guess it is a third set. Just need to go forward’,” she said.
Wozniacki has never quite lived up to the hype at the majors and rose to the top of the world rankings in 2010 without a major to her name.
So will it be third time lucky for the Dane?
“You live and you learn, and you try again. They knock you down, you come back up. Hopefully I can change that on Saturday,” Wozniacki says.
“I always believed in myself. I had a tough period where I had a few injuries. That was kind of hard and tough mentally. But once I got past that, I knew that if I can stay healthy and I work hard, my game is good enough for it.”
Despite the narrow defeat, Mertens was buoyed by her major success and a rise into the top 20.
“It’s a mixed feeling. Of course you lost the match, but of course also I’m very happy that I’m in the semi-final for the first time,” Mertens said.
“I gave everything today until the last point. Of course, 5-4, 30-0, you think, Oh! But she was just slightly better than me today.”
The turbulent climax to the victory was particularly tough in the stands.
“I’m sorry,” quipped Wozniacki, referring to her father and coach’s nerve-racking journey in the player’s box. “When I started on Tour my dad had dark hair, now it’s all grey.”
Those nerves will be tested once again in the silverware showdown, when his daughter with face current World No 1 Simona Halep, both playing with ‘borrowed money’ in Melbourne.
“Halep, just like me, has been down match points in the tournament, has fought her way back,” explained Wozniacki.
“I think it’s exciting because we’re both playing for the No 1 ranking, which I think is a cool storyline.
“A new opportunity on Saturday, and I’m going to do my best to try and win it.”
Wozniacki leads the head-to-head against Halep 4-2, having won their last three meetings.