43rd Time’s the Charm: Caroline Wozniacki Wins Her First Major Title

One by one, former Grand Slam champions welcomed Caroline Wozniacki to the club late Saturday night at Melbourne Park after her 7-6 (2), 3-6, 6-4 victory over Simona Halep.

Billie Jean King was first. She handed the beaming Wozniacki the Daphne Akhurst Memorial Cup, which is awarded to the women’s singles champion at the Australian Open.

Chris Evert and Mats Wilander were next. Rod Laver chimed in on Twitter. So did Serena Williams, Wozniacki’s friend and tennis role model, after watching her breakthrough match on television in the United States.

It took Wozniacki more than a decade to join the club by winning her first major singles title, and it required two final weeks of struggle in Melbourne.

She had to save two match points in the second round and shrug off a mental lapse while serving for the match in the semifinals. She then had to summon the guts, the energy and the accuracy on the run to prevail against Halep, weary but still dangerous, in Saturday’s 2-hour-49-minute final played on a sweltering Australian summer evening.

“I think I had everything else on my résumé,” Wozniacki said later, the trophy glittering by her side. “No. 1, year-end championships, big tournaments, 27 titles. I basically have beaten any player that has been playing that is on tour right now. This was the only thing missing, and it means something extra even that it took a little longer, but I still made it here.”

Halep, a Romanian, will lose her No. 1 ranking to Wozniacki on Monday, and knows all too well about delayed gratification. She is now 0-3 in major single finals and has lost all of them in three sets.

“Maybe the fourth time will be with luck,” she said in remarks to the crowd at Laver Arena, before leaving the court.

“It’s fine,” she said later. “I cried, but now I’m smiling. Is just a tennis match in the end. But yeah, I’m really sad I couldn’t win it. It was close again, but the gas was over in the end. She was better. She was fresher. She had actually more energy in the end.”

This much-anticipated final was tight and tense from the beginning. The spectators sounded as divided as tennis fans in general, with roughly equal support being expressed for “Caro!” and “Simona!”

The match turned into a grueling fitness test, with both finalists breathing hard, even on the changeovers. Eventually each took a medical timeout.

Extended rallies were the rule. There were 50 exchanges that lasted nine shots or more, 50 others that lasted from five to eight shots.

This was no surprise in light of the speed and defensive skills that both women possess, but it made for quite a challenge.

Momentum shifted repeatedly. Wozniacki took a 3-0 lead to start before Halep reeled her in to force a tiebreaker that Wozniacki — playing aggressively, particularly down the line — was able to dominate.

This was the first Grand Slam final in the Open era between women who had both faced match points in the tournament.

Wozniacki and Halep had also both lost their previous two major finals. But Wozniacki is now the first player from Denmark to win a major singles title.

She lost the 2009 United States Open final to Kim Clijsters and the 2014 United States Open final to Williams. Both opponents were aggressive base liners, with power in abundance, and they took the initiative against the more defensive-minded Wozniacki.

She said she briefly considered retirement in 2016 when recurring physical problems, particularly a severe ankle injury, contributed to her drop in the rankings. Wozniacki was at No. 74 before the 2016 United States Open, but reached the semifinals and has now made it all the way back to the top.

She has changed her game in recent seasons and improved her serve and forehand. Wozniacki still relies on her outstanding coverage and consistency from the baseline, but she has added a dose of risk to the mix.

It helped her win the WTA Finals — the elite, eight-women, season-ending championship — last year. That was her most significant title until Saturday’s.

It has been quite a process. Though Wozniacki is just 27, this was her 43rd appearance in a Grand Slam singles tournament. Flavia Pennetta, Marion Bartoli and Jana Novotna are the only women to have played in more before winning a first major trophy.

The first time Wozniacki played the Australian Open, as a 17-year-old in 2008, she reached the fourth round. She rose to No. 1 in October 2010 and — with the exception of one week — held the top spot until January 2012.

She faced questions all through that run about her inability to win a Grand Slam title.

“I’m No. 1 in the world. I’m 20 years old, so I think I’m doing fine,” she said in an interview in May 2011. “Obviously, of course, I’d like to win a Grand Slam, but I don’t put pressure on myself. Next year. This year. In three years.”

It took nearly seven, and it was sweet. No one else will ask her whether she will ever be able to win a Grand Slam singles title — a question she joked on Saturday night that she had heard “a hundred thousand times.” (Or maybe she wasn’t joking).

“I think that’s one of the most positive things about all this: I’m never going to get that question again,” she said. “I’m just waiting for the question, When are you going to win the second one?”

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