Welcome to Melbourne Memories, where wtatennis.com will take a look back at some of the most noteworthy narratives from the Australian Open over the past 25 years. Next up: Caroline Wozniacki battled through the draw to capture her first Grand Slam trophy and return to the World No.1 ranking in 2018.
Caroline Wozniacki came into the 2018 Australian Open with a legacy of excellence defining her decade-long stint as an elite player. At that point, she had won 27 WTA singles titles and had amassed 67 weeks at the World No.1 ranking, including two season-ending finishes at the top spot in 2010 and 2011.
Wozniacki's best showing at a Grand Slam event, though, had been runner-up finishes at the US Open in 2009 and 2014. But when asked about the pressure to try to win a major prior to the tournament, Wozniacki demurred, saying "I just play and have fun, that's it."
"I don't put more, I don't put less pressure," Wozniacki said. "It's just the same, you know. It's a new tournament, a new year. I'm healthy. I have the opportunity to play here. I'm just going to enjoy that, see where it takes me."
Still, Wozniacki was on a strong run of momentum coming into the 2018 season. A tremendous victory at the 2017 WTA Finals pushed her back into the Top 3 of the singles rankings, her best year-end finish since 2011. It was a huge change from just 18 months prior, when injuries and inconsistent form pushed her all the way down to World No.74.
Wozniacki kept her perspective about her chances, including a possible return to World No.1. "I think it is something that would always be special and really awesome," she said. "At the same time, I'm just doing what I can do. I'm just playing here right now. That's what I'm focusing on. Everything else will kind of fall into place."
Nevertheless, if there was a time for Wozniacki to grasp a Grand Slam trophy, perhaps the 2018 Australian Open would be it.
However, if anyone thought Wozniacki would cruise through the draw without much fuss, those expectations were rapidly dashed. No.2-seeded Wozniacki found herself in dire straits in her second-round clash with World No.119 Jana Fett of Croatia, who was playing in her first-ever Grand Slam main draw.
Fett, the 2014 Australian Open junior singles finalist, found angled winners and kept constant pressure on return to blast to a one-set lead. Wozniacki recovered to grab the second set, but any hopes for a routine deciding set by the Dane were wiped out when Fett charged to 5-1 and put herself on the verge of a stunning upset.
The Croat held two match points in that game, but Wozniacki steeled herself to eke out a break of service and keep the match going.
"At 5-1, 40-15, I felt like I was one foot out of the tournament," said Wozniacki. "She served a great serve down the T, as well. It was just slightly out. I was kind of lucky.
"Then I felt her tighten up just slightly. I thought to myself, 'You know what, at this point, make her win it, don't give it to her.' When I managed to win it to 5-2, I said, 'Okay, I'm still alive.' She still has four more balls to win in a row or in the game. I was like, 'Just try and stay aggressive.'"
Wozniacki used her champion's experience to turn the match around, eventually reeling off the final six games to squeak out a 3-6, 6-2, 7-5 victory.
"I'm very proud of the way I came back," the No.2 seed said. "All of a sudden seeing myself down, almost out of the tournament, I started playing better and started really playing the tennis that I wanted to play."
Wozniacki demonstrated her competitive grit, which she attributed to "growing up in a sporty family where everyone is competitive and you hate to lose."
"If you lose a game to anyone in my family, you're going to hear about it for at least a week," she added.
With that close call behind her, Wozniacki spurred herself on for the remainder of the tournament. She dropped only one more set en route to her third Grand Slam final.
"I think it's been a great two weeks so far," said Wozniacki, after her semifinal win. "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 final. 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."
Her last opponent would be experiencing a similar batch of emotions. No.1 seed Simona Halep awaited in the final, and, like Wozniacki, Halep was still seeking her first Grand Slam title despite having held the No.1 ranking. Halep had also lost her two previous Grand Slam finals, at Roland Garros in 2014 and 2017.
"Halep, just like me, was down match points early on in the tournament, has come back and fought her way," said Wozniacki. The Romanian had to save match points in marathon victories twice during the fortnight: against Lauren Davis in the third round and Angelique Kerber in the semifinals.
Wozniacki pointed out another key component which added even more gravity to the final. "I think it's exciting because we're both playing for the No.1 ranking," Wozniacki said. "Whoever wins on Saturday will be on the top of the rankings, which I think is a cool storyline."
As befitting a final between two players jousting for the World No.1 ranking, the combatants gritted their way through a two-hour and 49-minute barnburner which had both players bravely fighting through pain and fatigue.
Celebration day today🏆🍾 pic.twitter.com/O3Uekp82No— Caroline Wozniacki (@CaroWozniacki) January 28, 2018
In the end, it was Wozniacki who fought back from a late break down in the third set, clinching the final three games of the affair to emerge victorious 7-6(2), 3-6, 6-4, and earn the first Grand Slam title of her career.
It was also the first singles major for a player from Denmark, and propelled Wozniacki back to the World No.1 ranking for the first time in exactly six years.
"I think being a new Grand Slam champion and World No.1 sounds pretty good," a smiling Wozniacki told the press, following her victory. "I'm very excited for that. It's a dream come true."
The Fett match loomed large in her mind as a turning point. "From being almost out of the tournament to sitting here with the Australian Open trophy, it's amazing," said Wozniacki. "It's been quite a turnaround, something I'm very proud of. At the same time, I think it really was a great momentum shift for me going further into the tournament after that [match]."
Hoisting a Grand Slam trophy was the icing on the cake for Wozniacki. "I think I've had an incredible career," she said. "The end of the day, I think a lot of people would like to be in my position. Honestly, you know, nobody knows how much work, dedication you put into it.
"All I could tell myself was, 'You know what, you've given it everything you have. If it's going to happen, it's going to happen. If not, then at least you know you've given it everything you've got and you can be proud of any achievement.' Obviously adding a Grand Slam to my CV is what caps it off."
Over seven years after ascending to World No.1 for the first time, and just a year and a half after falling out of the Top 70, Wozniacki at last achieved that capper.
"At certain points, especially when you start having injuries and stuff, you start maybe doubting if you're ever going to be 100 percent healthy for longer periods of time," she said.
"But I think last year, already for a year and a half, I've proved that I can beat anyone out there on court," Wozniacki continued. "When you're in the finals, I'm not going to lie, I was really nervous before going out there on court, but once I kind of settled in and we had the warmup, I was just like, 'I have everything to win.'"