Day 13 preview: Winner takes all

  • Vivienne Christie

For all the discipline and precision required to thrive in professional tennis, the women’s game hasn’t recently been the most ordered place.

Big titles change hands with surprising regularity; unexpected new champions come through. And in a quirk of the system, the world’s top ranking can precede Grand Slam success.

But as Simona Halep and Caroline Wozniacki, ranked world No.1 and No.2 respectively, take their place in their place in the Australian Open women’s final, there is a sense that everything is as it should be.

The last time that the top two players met in the final of any professional women’s event – let alone a Grand Slam – was at this event in 2015. That fact alone adds gravitas to the 2018 Melbourne Park decider and there’s extra importance as Halep and Wozniacki fight to remain or return to world No.1.

Halep first rose to her current heights in October last year, while Wozniacki debuted in top spot in 2010. But neither has yet secured a coveted Grand Slam to accompany that honour, creating another significant element as they take to the court.

Asked what it would mean to win a long-awaited major title, a smiling Halep admitted: “Bigger than No.1, honestly.”

The hunger for that breakthrough is intensified by how close they’ve each come so far. Halep was first a Grand Slam finalist at the 2014 French Open, returning to the decider of that event in 2017. Wozniacki is also entering her third Grand Slam final, having finished runner-up at the US Open in 2009 and 2014.

Evenly matched in motivation for the Australian Open title, the combatants thus have corresponding levels of experience – and an equal ability to make it count.

Halep’s Grand Slams were of the highest quality as she first lost to Maria Sharapova in three fiercely contested sets in Paris, and surrendered a 6-4 3-0 lead to Jelena Ostapenko in 2017.

MORE: Halep's courageous rollercoaster

“I was in this position in (the) French Open, so I can make (it) a better match,” the Romanian said of her approach to the AO2018 final. “Just make it more relaxed and taking (it) like a normal match.”

Wozniacki, runner-up to Kim Clijsters in 2009 and Serena Williams in 2014, has also benefited from her time on the big stage. “You know, you live and learn and you try again. They knock you down, you come back up,” she said. “Hopefully I can change that on Saturday.”

MORE: Third time lucky for Wozniacki? 

As they’ve evolved in their careers generally, Halep and Wozniacki have evolved in this tournament also, each saving match points in their fight to progress.

Halep’s has arguably been the bigger battle, with three match points recovered and almost three hours spent on court as she defeated Lauren Davis 15-13 in the third set of their third round clash. There was another thriller as she overcame Angelique Kerber 6-3 4-6 9-7 in the semifinal, in which the AO2016 champion also held match points.

It creates both confidence and freedom as the Romanian contemplates her first-ever final in Melbourne. “I feel happy,” said Halep after the two hours and 20 minutes required to win over Kerber. “I feel proud that I could stay there and fight till the end.”

Two match points saved as she rallied to recover from a 1-5 third-set deficit against Jana Fett in the second round, Wozniacki has also arrived in the final with new levels of self-belief and serenity achieved. 

“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,” said the Dane, who has won every match in straight sets since that second round.

“I'm just excited. It's another finals. It's another great two weeks. Regardless of what happens now, I've done my best. When you go out there on Saturday, you have everything to win.”

History suggests there’ll be much suspense. While Wozniacki holds a 4-2 lead in head-to-head encounters, three of their matches have gone to three sets. “I won against her (a) few times,” said Halep. “It's going to be a different match, new match, a tough one. Emotions are there. Pressures are there for both of us.”

Wozniacki is determined to keep those nerves at bay. “I could have been home already. But now I’m here and I fought my way to the finals,” she noted. “I’m going to do my best to try and win it.”

Having never progressed this far in Melbourne, there’s already a sense of victory for each player – at the same time, a first Grand Slam title is at stake. Either way, women’s tennis will proudly welcome a new major champion this weekend. And with that, a certain order will be restored.