MELBOURNE, AUSTRALIA - Caroline Wozniacki defeated Simona Halep in a classic on Saturday night, edging the World No.1 7-6(2), 3-6, 6-4 to win the Australian Open title. Wozniacki's win means she will retake the No.1 ranking on Monday, exactly six years to the day from when she last held the top spot.
The two biggest takeaways from a dramatic fortnight at Melbourne Park, capped off by an incredible 2 hour and 49-minute showcase for what the 2018 season might have in store:
Caroline Wozniacki shows a different kind of resiliency en route to the title.
Let's get this out of the way: Wozniacki did not need to win a major title to validate her exemplary career. Two weeks does not a career make. This is a woman who held the No.1 ranking for 67 weeks and has already won 27 titles. By making the final she would move to No.5 in the all-time career-prize money leaders (with her title win she will move to No.4 behind Serena Williams, Venus Williams, and Maria Sharapova). You don't do that unless you're a winner. Wozniacki was already a winner.
But to finally win her maiden major title and retake the No.1 ranking for the first time since she relinquished it six years ago was a result of more than just two weeks of work. The Wozniacki who won on Saturday is one who has had to endure physical and mental adversity over the last two years to emerge a far better competitor than she was during her dominant No.1 years.
It's easy to forget now that only 17 months ago, the Dane was nearly an afterthought. Her body had been ravaged by an assortment of injuries and her ranking had dropped to No.74 during the summer of 2016. In the first round of the US Open that year survived a tough three-setter against Taylor Townsend and proceeded to roll to an improbable semifinal. The tables had flipped and suddenly Wozniacki was once again the name you never wanted to see in your draw.
Wozniacki's injury streak forced to retool her fitness regime. She joked that when she was younger she could roll out of bed without a warmup and win matches. Her body never broke down and she could run for days - insert requisite marathon joke - and it took the Dane some time to realize her body was changing. Everything was set up for a real run at No.1 in 2017.
Then came six consecutive losses in finals. In fact, she did not win a set in her first five finals in Doha (l. Pliskova), Dubai (l. Svitolina), Miami (l. Konta), Eastbourne (l. Pliskova), Bastad (l. Siniakova), and Toronto (l. Svitolina). She shrugged off questions about whether it was getting to her head. The shrugging was unconvincing.
But Wozniacki kept at it. She kept putting herself in positions to go one better, and finally, she found her bearings in Asia. Wozniacki won her first title of the season in her seventh final, beating Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova in Tokyo. She followed it up by winning the BNP Paribas WTA Finals Singapore, defeating Venus Williams in the final. That resiliency made her a far more battle-tested competitor in Melbourne.
Wozniacki's ability to quickly steel herself after in-match wobbles earned her the title in Melbourne. There was saving two match-points to Jana Fett in the second round, winning six straight games from 1-5 down in the third set. Having dominated Carla Suárez Navarro in the first set of their quarterfinal, Wozniacki somehow let the second set slip away, only to find her game again in the final set. Similarly, against Elise Mertens in the semifinals, Wozniacki looked in complete control before she found herself down set points in the second set. Again, she stepped up and put the match back on her axis to close in two.
In the final, Wozniacki looked dominant early only to let the match slowly slip away. Halep was physically hurting but Wozniacki couldn't shut the door. After leading the final set 3-1 she rolled two bad forehands out to give Halep the break to 4-3 with a chance to serve to 5-3.
But as she did throughout the tournament and throughout the last 12 months, Wozniacki didn't feel sorry for herself. She broke right back and held off Halep to move ahead 5-4. Then, with Halep serving at 4-5, 30-all, Wozniacki played incredible defense to win an astounding 16-shot rally before winning a 10-ball match point to finally seal the deal.
Wozniacki's resiliency was already a core part of her game and an integral part of what made her an intimidating competitor. But here's some scary news for the locker room: The indefatigable Dane is better than ever.
Chin up, feet up: Take a bow, Simona Halep.
When Halep made her first major final at the 2014 French Open, she lost in a tough three sets to Maria Sharapova, 6-4, 6-7 (5), 6-4. She played well, fought valiantly, but lacked the experience to upend the five-time major champion. Last year, playing in her second major final, she was the heavy favorite against unseeded 20-year-old Jelena Ostapenko. Experience wasn't the issue on that balmy Saturday, but her mental fortitude came up short. So did her game. Halep was a handful of points away from the title and played percentage tennis. She played not to lose. Ostapenko kept swinging and played to win. The result was 4-6, 6-4, 6-3 win for the Latvian and another heartbreaker for Halep.
"It's a tough day because we couldn't win," Halep said in her runner-up speech in Paris as she addressed her team. "But let's work. Let's keep working. Let's believe." It was a speech that moved more than a few stone hearts on press row.
Neither experience, belief, mental fortitude, or game limited Halep in Saturday's final against Wozniacki. This time Halep ran into the one that she couldn't overcome: her body. Halep came into the final having played 11 hours and 31 minutes of tennis. She rolled her ankle badly in the first round against Destanee Aiava and her right foot plantar fascia began to flare up as the tournament went on, undoubtedly due to compensation for her left ankle injury. Between the miles she's run, the niggles she endured, and the work she had to put in to get a ball past Wozniacki, Halep finally ran out of gas.
Asked whether she felt ready to finally win her first major before the match, Halep unequivocally said yes. "I felt ready," Halep said. "But the body was not ready because I had so many long matches. The muscles were tired. The feet were not good enough.
"But mentally I was ready. I feel that I can face any challenge. I can play against anyone. I can win against anyone. But just sometimes is not how you want because you cannot physically do it."
"I did 100% what I could today," Halep said. "That's why I can say that I'm not sad for that. I'm sad that I lost the match, I was not the winner. But, you know, life goes on.
"For sure in the future, if I keep working like this and I keep playing like this, I will be in a good position again."
This has been Halep's mantra for the last nine months. She has featured in the final of two of the last four majors and finally took over the No.1 ranking that had so cruelly eluded her last fall. She has worked to not only to change her game - she fired 90 winners past two of the best counter-punchers in Kerber and Wozniacki - but her character. The transformation on both fronts has been nothing short of inspiring. It's one thing to learn a new forehand. It's quite another to learn a new way to think.
Halep was upbeat as she debriefed the match and she had every reason to be. This Melbourne fortnight was a breakthrough event for the 26-year-old, so long accused of being too passive, underpowered, or to use the cruelest descriptor for an elite athlete, too soft. With her two match-point saving wins over Lauren Davis and Angelique Kerber, her come from behind win over Destanee Aiava, and managing the nerves and expectations of playing a Slam as the top seed for the first time, Simona Halep navigated these unchartered waters with an inspired level of perspective and cool.
"I'm leaving Australia with many good thoughts and many positive things because what I've done these two weeks I never did, me, in the past. So it's okay."
It's more than ok. It was superb.