MELBOURNE, Australia - Former WTA World No.1 Caroline Wozniacki became the first to book her spot in the 2018 Australian Open finals, serving through a late-match hiccup to defeat 22-year-old Belgian Elise Mertens, 6-3, 7-6(2), making her first major final since 2014 (third overall), and her first outside the US Open.
"It was kind of like when I played in Toronto six times and I'd never won a match," Wozniacki said of her breakthrough in press. "That first round match that I played in Toronto, I was nervous serving it out, even though I was up 6-2, 5-0. I was like, 'Okay, I can do this.' When I won, something just disappeared. I said, 'Okay, thankfully now I can actually win here.' Then I went all the way to the finals."
Winner at the ASB Classic to start the season, Wozniacki last played the Australian Open semifinals in 2011, narrowly losing to future champion Li Na from match point up. The Dane appeared on course for emphatic redemption when she took a set and 5-3 lead.
Mertens also began 2018 with a title, defending her Hobart International title and took that momentum all the way into her first Grand Slam semifinal with wins over No.23 seed Daria Gavrilova and No.4 seed Elina Svitolina. Sensing nerves from Wozniacki, the big-hitting Belgian quickly flipped the script to engineer a pair of set points to level the match.
"It means so much to me," Wozniacki said during her on-court interview. "I got really tight at 5-4. I was here in a semifinal in 2011 and had a match point against Li Na and lost it. That was in my mind today, I just tried to stay calm."
Wozniacki led the tour with 60 match wins last season, cresting to win the biggest title of her career at the BNP Paribas WTA Finals Singapore presented by SC Global, and clearly used some of that experience to regain a more aggressive mindset to save both set points and restore order in the tie-break, closing out the win in one hour and 37 minutes on Rod Laver Arena.
Awaiting Wozniacki in her first Australian Open will be a familiar face, the winner of the second semifinal between World No.1 Simona Halep and 2016 champion Angelique Kerber. The former No.1 won both of her 2017 matches against Halep - dropping just two games to the Romanian in Singapore - and last played Kerber in the 2016 US Open semifinals, which Kerber won to first become No.1 in the world.
"I think it's been a great two weeks so far. 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.
"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."
Wozniacki can reclaim the top spot Thursday afternoon should Kerber defeat Halep; if the top seed advances, the winner of Saturday's final will end the fortnight atop the WTA rankings.
"I always believed in myself. I had a tough period where I had a few injuries. That was kind of hard and tough mentally. But once I got past that, I knew that if I can stay healthy and I work hard, my game is good enough for it.
I was just giving myself time. I think if you don't feel like you can go all the way in tournaments, then to me there's no sense in playing. So for me it's always I want to be competitive, I want to be the best, and that's why I'm still playing."