Published On: Fri, Jan 26th, 2018

Aussie Open final preview: Chronicle of a narrative's death foretold

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Compile a list of the best tennis players to have never won a Grand Slam, and Caroline Wozniacki and Simona Halep would arguably be the first two names on it. Come Saturday, one of them will be out of consideration for that distinction.

Halep and Wozniacki, the top two ranked players in the world, will meet for the first time at a major in the Australian Open final. Each has played and lost two major finals previously (Wozniacki’s both came at the US Open, Halep’s at the French), and each has worn the oft-pejorative label of Slamless world No. 1.

Now they have a chance to paint over the broad-strokes narratives that have colored their respective careers. The winner of this match will leave Melbourne with the top ranking, and the hardware to back it up. The loser will have to settle for remaining atop that aforementioned list for at least another four months.

So, yeah, there’s kind of a lot at stake here, even if each woman has tried to play it down.

What they’re saying

“I feel different. I don’t feel that pressure anymore,” Halep told WTA Insider Courtney Nguyen, when asked to compare her mindset now to that when entering her previous Slam finals. “Emotionally it’s maybe the same. It’s a big match, it’s a big day tomorrow. But I just try and feel that I can take it like a normal match. If it’s gonna happen, OK, if not, I’m sure if I keep working like this. I’m sure I will keep facing these opportunities in the future.”

Wozniacki is taking a similar, control-what-I-can-control, whatever-happens-happens approach.

“I’m trying to go into that match tomorrow the same exact way that I’ve gone into every single match I’ve played here,” she said. “Honestly, win or lose, the sun will come up tomorrow, it’s going to be the same exact thing. I’m going to be the same person, I’m going to have the same family and friends around me. Win or lose, so long as I gave it my all I’m going to be proud of myself and be happy with whatever outcome it may be.”

Those are nice sentiments, but the pair’s extremely chill, perspective-laden attitudes may not hold if and when they find themselves in a three-set dogfight in which every point feels like an opportunity for life-changing triumph or enduring regret. Or heck, maybe they will hold, because both women are playing with house money at this point. Like, literally millions of dollars of house money.

More life

This tournament for these two has been all about survival.

Halep turned her ankle badly in her first-round match against Destanee Aiava, and it looked like her first Slam as world No. 1 would be short-lived. Instead, the gutty Romanian has kept on pushing, through pain and numbness in the ankle, through physically and mentally exhausting matches, past big hitters and stout defenders, to the doorstep of a career-defining breakthrough.

Related: What we learned about the WTA in a year without Serena

Five different times in this tournament, Halep was a point away from elimination – thrice in her third-round win over Lauren Davis and twice in her semifinal epic against Angelique Kerber. She’s the first-ever Australian Open finalist to have saved match points against two different opponents along the way.

But at no point did Halep have her foot as far out the door as Wozniacki, who trailed 5-1 and faced two match points in the deciding set of her second-round match against Jana Fett. She got some help when Fett turned into a bundle of panic, but Wozniacki had to fight like a maniac to turn the tide, reeling off an in-set bagel to escape.

She’s been a rejuvenated player since then, untethered and swinging with freedom. Or at least she was, until it came time to close out her last match. Wozniacki didn’t get pushed quite as far as Halep in the semis, but things got dicey for her there, too. Serving for the match at 5-4 in the second set against Elise Mertens, Wozniacki’s focus and confidence abandoned her, and she dropped two consecutive games. A niggling thought wormed its way from the back of her mind to the front: She’d been here before – in this exact situation on this same court, serving for a spot in the finals at 5-4 in the second set – in 2011 against Li Na, and lost.

“It’s weird,” Wozniacki later said of her memory of that match. “Seven years on, it’s still there.”

But, with some help from a nervy Mertens, Wozniacki collected herself, gutted out a four-deuce hold in which she saved two set points, and then won the tiebreaker in decisive fashion.

B-E Aggressive

Both Wozniacki and Halep have made their bones playing defense, counterpunching, using their superior fitness to wear opponents down. But both have thrived at this tournament specifically by amping up their offense, getting bolder, braver, and more aggressive.

Wozniacki’s improved forehand has allowed her to be more opportunistic and attack from both wings, and her serve is more of a weapon than it’s ever been. She hit 25 winners in just 15 games in her fourth-round demolition of Magdalena Rybarikova. She’s fired 17 aces in her last two matches, and won a staggering 84 percent of her first-serve points against Mertens.

Halep’s transformation has been even more pronounced. She cracked 50 winners against Kerber, an impressive feat for any player against any opponent, let alone against one of the game’s most indefatigable retrievers. Halep said after the match that it was surely the first time she’d hit that many winners in a match.

“And I hope it’s not the last,” she smiled.

Related: Halep’s epic win over Kerber was a profile in courage

Halep has said a few times now that her French Open loss to Jelena Ostapenko, in which she had her racket snatched from her hand, was the impetus for her new mindset.

“I’m changed,” she told Nguyen. “I’m better than at the French Open. At the French Open, even if everybody said I didn’t risk it, I didn’t go to take the points, that was my limit at that moment. In my opinion I did everything I could in that match but I couldn’t do more because of the emotional part, and maybe because of the game. I didn’t have it strong in my head that I have to risk or take the initiative.

“Now I’m better. I worked on it. I feel I’m not afraid of losing, I just refuse to lose.”

What to expect

Hustle, all-out effort, 20-plus-shot baseline staring contests, searing backhands down the line, and running. So, so much running. These are two of the fastest, fittest players on tour, and their respective newfound aggressiveness will be challenged as they try to hit around each other.

There’s no reason this match can’t rival the Halep-Kerber semifinal for quality and tension. The outcome is near-impossible to call, but Wozniacki – being free of physical ailments, owning a 4-2 head-to-head record, and having spent far less time on court this fortnight – gets the slightest edge.

THE PICK: Wozniacki in 3 sets

HOW TO WATCH: ESPN (U.S.) or TSN (Canada), Saturday at 3:30 a.m. ET.

(Photos courtesy: Getty Images)

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