Published On: Sat, Jan 27th, 2018

Wozniacki and Halep: An indelible Aussie Open final and a testament to character

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Sixty-seven weeks. That’s how long Caroline Wozniacki spent as the top-ranked women’s player in the world between 2010-2012, the ninth-longest sojourn atop the summit in the history of the WTA computer rankings. And yet, it never seemed like she was able to fully enjoy it, because rare was the occasion when the distinction wasn’t given a qualifier, when she wasn’t reminded of the caveat, and the blind spot on her resume.

The stigma of a Slamless world No. 1 may have existed before Wozniacki, but it was during Wozniacki’s run at No. 1 that it really became a Thing. Every week that went by in which both her ranking and her empty Grand Slam trophy case remained unchanged, she was made to answer for herself, to justify her standing at the top of the sport. She came to be associated far more closely with what she hadn’t done than what she had.

This is a strange thing that happens sometimes in sports. Accomplishments become albatrosses. Success, when it doesn’t beget more success, is held against you. Attaining a hallowed signifier, like a “1” next to your name, becomes an invitation for others to question your worthiness to hold it, as if the fact of the achievement isn’t its own justification. In sports, it often seems, there are few crimes more damning than being good but not good enough.

Wozniacki won’t have to answer for that any longer. She’ll again be No. 1 when the new rankings are rolled out Monday, six years to the day she last relinquished the top spot, but this time, the experience should be quite different.

“I’m never going to get the question again about being a world No.1 without a Slam,” Wozniacki said. She saw to that Saturday in Melbourne Park, when she outlasted Simona Halep in an absolute brawl of a match to win the Australian Open.

You could fill a book with all the twists and turns and emotional highs and lows of the punishing three-set final. There was the sheer physicality of it; the preponderance of leg-torching all-court exchanges. There was the thrill of watching two historically defensive players will themselves into attack mode to try to shorten the points. There was the stunning linearity of their rallies; the ability of both players to change the direction of the ball, and their willingness to go up the sideline on the run. There were the hot and humid conditions that compounded the physical toll, forced both players to take a medical timeout, and eventually triggered the extreme-heat policy before the deciding set. There was the agonizing, non-stop scoreboard tension, with momentum and energy freely changing hands and no clear favorite emerging until Wozniacki’s championship-clinching break.

There was the irrepressible Halep, playing most maniacally with her back against the wall, recovering from 5-2 down to force a tiebreaker in the first set, saving all seven break points she faced in the second (including three while serving it out), and pulling out two separate 18-point, 12-minute holds that turned the tide of the last two sets just as they were threatening to get away from her. There was the seemingly indestructible Wozniacki, hardly slowing down as the match pressed toward the three-hour mark, running down drop shots from well behind the baseline, holding her nerve through some dicey moments, and busting out some big, bold, timely second serves.

At the end, after Wozniacki’s forehand had betrayed her and Halep could no longer put anything behind her serves, there were just two women engaged in a battle of wills, emptying the dregs of their reserve tanks and throwing whatever they had left at each other.

“I’m sorry that I had to win today,” Wozniacki told Halep, in earnest, during the trophy ceremony.

For all the drama, and all that was at stake, the match was about something bigger than just which of the two finally won a Slam. It was the culmination of a tournament – and really, the several months leading up to it – in which Wozniacki and Halep built up and exhibited some admirable character; in which they stared down criticism, doubt, and failure, and leaned into it, and reached out to grab control of their own narratives.

One of the hardest things to do in life is be honest about your own shortcomings, and then actually do something about it; to be willing not only to make a clear-eyed self-assessment, but to then fundamentally change. Halep has done that. She responded to coach Darren Cahill’s ultimatum last year by making a committed effort to adopt a new attitude, avoid the defeatist spirals that pulled her down in the past, and instead stay positive, and fight until the last ball.

She decided after losing the French Open final that she wasn’t going to let anyone turn her into a bystander again, and no one has. It’s one thing to espouse that kind of tactical shift, or enact it in lower-stakes matches against lesser competition, but Halep hit a combined 90 winners in her last two matches at the Aussie Open, against two of the most impenetrable defenders in the galaxy. She went down swinging against Wozniacki, playing inside the court, stepping into her shots, ripping drive volleys, and looking more comfortable coming to net.

Neither her more resolute fighter’s mentality nor her more assertive game has prevented her from taking a series of heart-stomping defeats. But in way, that’s been more revealing, because the fact that the changes she made have stuck, in the midst of those crushing losses, is what lets you know they’re real. She’s still Slamless, having lost all three of her finals in three sets, but in Melbourne, Halep put together one of the most impressive, inspiring tournaments you’ll ever see in this sport: playing the entire fortnight on a bad wheel, winning third sets of 16 and 28 games, spending more than 14 hours on court, saving five match points along the way, and coming within six points of the title. If her past few months have taught us anything, it’s that she’ll bounce back from this, and come back more determined, and better.

“Sad that I couldn’t make it the third time,” she said in her consolation speech. “But maybe the fourth time will be with luck.”

It won’t really be luck, though, if and when Halep finally does break through, just as it wasn’t luck for Wozniacki, for whom the third time was indeed a charm. The insane scrutiny Wozniacki was subjected to early in her career could have broken her will, especially when she eventually fell out of the top five, and then the top 10, and the top 20, and the top 70; when she was struggling with injuries and wasn’t having any meaningful success, at the majors or otherwise, and all anyone seemed to want to ask her about was her personal life. A couple years ago, there were rumblings she was pondering retirement.

Instead, she too revamped her game, maintaining her chase-down-everything defensive mindset but turning her serve into a weapon, and working at hitting through her forehand more consistently, instead of guiding it. Even as her form rebounded, she took her lumps, at one point losing six straight finals. But she finally punched through in Singapore last fall, climbed all the way back to No. 2 in the world, and came to Melbourne to answer the lingering questions that had dogged her since she was 20 years old. Was she a worthy No. 1? Did she have the goods to win a Slam?

Emphatically, yes.

(Photos courtesy: Getty Images)

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