A maiden Grand Slam title that meant so much to both players could, sadly, only belong to one. Caroline Wozniacki is the 2018 Australian Open champion after an enthralling battle between two great baseline warriors ended 7-6 (7-2) 3-6 6-4 with raw emotion from both players, but at brave Simona Halep’s expense.
In hot and humid conditions on Rod Laver Arena, a match that lasted two hours and 49 minutes was not just a test of tennis, and nerve, but of courage and will. The first major women’s final in the Open era between two women who had saved match points to get there was decided on the first with a netted Halep backhand.
Wozniacki, twice a US Open runner-up, flung her racquet into the air and fell sobbing to the court. How much it meant to her, and how utterly devastating for Halep, a two-time French Open finalist, to have lost.
The Romanian top seed buried her head in a towel as Wozniacki climbed up to her player box to greet a team that included her father and coach Piotr, and fiance David Lee. Only three women have made more Grand Slam appearances before winning a title than Wozniacki’s 43.
But what a momentous staying effort, too, from Halep, having saved match points in two different matches en route to the final: three in that record-equalling epic against Lauren Davis and two in the 9-7 semifinal thriller against Angelique Kerber two days earlier.
The type of contest many had expected was perhaps even better than that, for the quality was outstanding, and how little between them summed up by a total points tally of 110 to 108.
The No.1 ranking was also on the line but that was not the main prize. Both had been there or, in Halep’s case, carried the number into the final. There was a $4 million cheque as well, but it was all about the title. Everything to do with shrugging off the gorilla on the shoulders that was a zero in the column for the number of Grand Slams.
Nevertheless, Wozniacki’s bonus is that she will on Monday return to the summit for the first time in exactly six years, a WTA record gap, having spent 67 weeks there from 2010-12. Always, though, there was the caveat that she had not won a Slam. Now, at the age of 27, she has.
“I’m sorry, I’m just taking a second here to hug Daphne,’’ said Wozniacki, WTA trailblazer Billie Jean King having presented the trophy named for the late Daphne Akhurst, 50 years after her own triumph on the Kooyong lawns.
“I’ve dreamt of this moment for so many years and to be here today is a dream come true. My voice is shaky. I never cry, but today it’s a very emotional moment.’’
She paid generous tribute to Halep, acknowledging it was a tough day for the top seed. “I’m sorry I had to win today,’’ Wozniacki said, referencing her opponent’s “incredible fight”. She also thanked her father and fiance, admitting she had been a “nervous wreck in the morning who needed some calming down.
Halep admitted it was "not easy to talk right now", but congratulated Wozniacki for an "amazing match. "It's been a great tournament for me,'' she said. "I started not very well with an ankle injury. Of course I'm sad I couldn't win today but Caroline was better than me.''
She thanked her team, including Australian coach Darren Cahill. "It's tough work every day. Thanks for being by my side. Sad I couldn't make it the third time, but maybe the fourth time I will have luck.''
Tennis-wise, Wozniacki’s victory was built on fabulous retrieving, as ever, a marvellous backhand, as usual, and a stronger serve, which is a more recent development but a significant one. Her forehand wobbled in the third set in particular, but her resolve did not.
History was perhaps the best measure of how important the first set would be, for the winner in 42 of the past 45 women’s Slam finals was the player who drew first blood. The last exception was at the 2017 French Open, where Halep looked to be headed to victory over Jelena Ostapenko, only to lose it in the three crushing sets.
It was critical that she held onto her serve in the third game of the second set, Halep saving four break chances in an 18-point duel that lasted close to 11 minutes.
The world No.1 had been playing with a sore ankle after twisting it in the opening round, but when she called for a trainer at 3-2 it was for a blood pressure check. As the clock ticked towards 9pm, the thermometer still showed 30 degrees, the humidity still extreme, and ice needed by both players to chill more than just the courtside drinks.
Physically, the bulldog Wozniacki was looking stronger. Halep had spent more time on court - 11 hours, 31 minutes - than even Roger Federer, equalling the tournament record in for games played when taken to 48 by Lauren Davis on the middle Saturday.
A week later, she appeared to be flagging during a tight second set, and was also clutching her left thigh. Yet she somehow broke for 5-3, then saved three break-back points before and finally converting her third set point with a forehand into the open court.
Both players disappeared inside the tunnel, with the match level and one hour and 38 minutes old. With the WTA’s extreme heat rule in effect, the option of a 10-minute break was gratefully taken; when they returned, one set was the difference between glory and despair.
Halep’s second serve was deteriorating, and her frustrations rose as she was broken in the second game. She had to keep trying to shorten the points or all would be lost, and in the end it was, but no-one could question the Romanian’s fight or resolve.
She was running on fumes, looked so utterly exhausted that it was miraculous she was running at all. The first three games of the third set lasted 26 minutes, the longest of them a marathon on the Wozniacki serve that ended with a double fault. Halep was barely holding on, just 0/8 on second serve points and soon behind again. Eventually, there would be no coming back.
Wozniacki had a game point for 3-0 in the third set, but while a break down at 3-4 needed a medical timeout for treatment on a sore left knee. She returned to the court and gained an immediate break back, held her own serve then broke Halep one last time.
Roger Federer had spoken, almost wistfully, the previous night of the thrill of being a first-time winner, while not suggesting he would trade-in any of his subsequent 18. As to how many Wozniacki will finish with, that matters far little than simply the fact that there has now been a start.