Saturday, January 27, 2018

Good times never seemed so good

It was a spectacular Australian Open, filled with drama and high quality tennis, and now we have a champion. World number 2 (and that's about to change) Caroline Wozniacki--aka the Great Dane, the Golden Retriever, Sunshine--has finally won her (first?) major.

It's been a long haul for the superbly athletic Wozniacki, who spent 67 weeks, between 2010 and 2012, as the world number 1. During that period, she was not able, or perhaps not willing, to expand her defensive game and become more aggressive, and she paid dearly for that. This writer even wrote some blank verse, "The Lesson of Caroline," about the Dane's lack of aggression and subsequent fate (the publication folded, so there is no link).

Coached by her father, Piotr Wozniacki, for many years, the world number 2 frequently brought in new coaches, but they never lasted long, presumably because Piotr was always there in the background (or perhaps not so much in the background). Finally, Wozniacki gave that project up and returned to having her father as her only coach.

However, during some of these "new coach" periods, Wozniacki did become more aggressive, only to fall back into her old patterns. Last year, seemingly out of nowhere, the 27-year-old Dane did change her game, improving her serve, adding a nice dose of aggression, and winning the WTA Finals. She showed up in Melbourne in excellent form, and--despite a very big blip in the 2nd round, against world number 19 Jana Fett--she moved deftly through the draw. That second round match, however, was a magic trick: Down 1-5 and two match points, Wozniacki found a way to win.

That's a pretty dramatic story, but it pales next to what Wozniacki's last opponent, Simona Halep, went through. The world number 1 rolled her ankle in the first round, and was severely tested by Lauren Davis in the second round. Then she played a match for the ages against 2016 champion Angie Kerber in the semifinals. After playing hours and hours (sometimes in extreme heat) in sometimes very tense atmospheres--and holding an injury--Halep wasn't exactly in the condition she would have hoped for to compete in a final.

I quote myself here: "The last player you want to face after everything but your blood has been drained is Caroline Wozniacki, and that's whom Halep plays in the final.

"Wozniacki, even after all these years, could probably play consecutive five-hour matches without breaking too much of a sweat, so extreme is her athletic endurance. She has said in the past that it doesn't matter to her how long she has to stay on the court."

There was other drama. Each woman was seeking to either retain the number 1 ranking or to earn it. Each woman had saved match points on the way to the final, a first at the Australian Open. And each woman had failed twice in attempts to win majors--Wozniacki at the U.S. Open in 2009 and 2014, and Halep at the French Open in 2014 and 2017.

Also, Wozniacki wasn't the only player who had changed. Halep, also known for outstanding defensive play, has recently made her game much more aggressive. She has also cleaned up her attitude problem: the Romanian player would sometimes get so down on herself during a match that her game would go to pieces. The Halep we saw at the Australian Open played like a champion, taking everything in stride, and finding ways to turn misfortune into victory.

What a backdrop!

Halep got off to a slow start in the final, dropping behind quickly, but she also caught up quickly, though Wozniacki won the first set. Halep had to fight hard in the second set, but she was able to win it. At that point, I thought that--unless Wozniacki wilted (hardly likely), Halep would have to blast through the third set quickly or her body (though maybe not her mind) would give out.

Both players had medical issues. Halep developed a blister on her foot, almost certainly from overcompensating for her other, injured foot. She also grew weak and had to have her blood pressure checked. Wozniacki had to have her knee bandaged.

The third set was a good one--better than I thought it might be--but as time went on, Halep's body wound down. Frequently bending over and grabbing her leg, the Romanian star kept finding just one more surge of energy, then another, then another--but not quite enough. When it came down to an excruciating test of nerves at the end, it was Wozniacki who came through, 7-6, 3-6, 6-4. The match lasted two hours and 49 minutes, and--while it couldn't compete with Halep and Kerbers's semifinal in terms of extreme quality and drama--it was nevertheless an outstanding final.

Caroline Wozniacki took a very long time to prove to the tennis world that she could win a major, but that's her style: She doesn't mind how long she has to wait, so great is her endurance. She did it her way, and--given her newfound serve and aggression and her high fitness level--she's likely to do it again.

As for Halep, it must be heartbreaking to have played really well in three major finals and to have lost them all. I don't believe that what doesn't kill you makes you stronger, but perhaps Halep does. The French Open is just a few months away, and the Romanian tends to shine there. My gut feeling is that Halep's game will get even better, and that she will eventually (maybe very soon) prevail.


Todd.Spiker said...

Here's hoping Simona can "pull a Jana" (Novotna, not Fett) and finally be the last one standing in her *fourth* career slam final.

Diane said...

I was amazed at how, in the condition she was in, she kept finding one more fight, one more fight, one more.... I almost believed that she could pull it off. Just another reminder that sport can be very cruel. All credit to Caroline, but I'm already a poor sleeper, and my first thought was that I gave up an entire night just to see Halep almost win a major :(