Finally, ‘Sunshine’ dispels dark clouds!

A fairytale breakthrough for a princess from the land of Hans Christian Andersen.

The ever cheerful Caroline Wozniacki had at last something to cheer about... her first Grand Slam trophy.   -  AFP

Ah, if only life were like a fairytale. Little girls dream about saving the life of a handsome prince, as “The Little Mermaid” did in Hans Christian Andersen’s classic fable where adventure, love, and morality intertwined. One can just imagine young Caroline Wozniacki being enchanted when her parents read her the bedtime story of how the mermaid tried to win over the prince.

How fitting that Wozniacki was born and raised in Odense, Denmark, the birthplace of Andersen. Wozniacki never had to endure the mermaid’s tragic loss of her family and her voice in her noble and unsuccessful yet ultimately rewarding quest.

Her middle-class parents were outstanding Polish athletes who immigrated to Denmark. Wozniacki grew up with little adversity, aside from hitting balls alone against a wall for hours because no one would play with her as a seven-year-old. Much like the determined mermaid, she relentlessly chased her own dream of becoming a tennis champion.

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Wozniacki improved so dramatically that, as a 10-year-old prodigy, she appeared on Danish television. A year later, her life really took a fairytale turn when she found a prince of her own. Prince Frederick Andre Henrik Christian, heir to the Danish throne and an avid tennis fan, invited Wozniacki to Fredensborg Palace where they played mixed doubles with his friends. The Prince even attended her Wimbledon junior matches and donated $3,000 to help defray her travel expenses.

At age 13, she emerged as Denmark’s top woman player. In 2009, Wozniacki, 19, broke through and joined the pro elite. With the support of her loving father-coach Piotr, she won tournaments on grass, clay and hard courts, a rare feat and stunned everyone by reaching the US Open final. She wound up ranked No. 4 in 2009 and full of hope that her fairytale-like journey from little Denmark, a country not known for world-class female tennis players, would continue.

Although Wozniacki finished both 2010 and 2011 ranked No. 1, her dream of winning a Grand Slam title remained agonisingly elusive. Serena Williams, her good friend, and other power players Maria Sharapova, Petra Kvitova, and Victoria Azarenka kept beating her to the punch. Her rankings bounced up and down — just 17 months ago she plummeted to No. 74 — as she was hampered by periodic injuries, a mediocre serve, and a flawed forehand.

Wozniacki even contemplated retiring in 2016. But she was inspired by the late-career comebacks from injuries of ageless legends Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal. “They come back year after year, and they play even better,” she said. “You’re like, ‘How?’ I’m always thinking if they can get better, then I can too.”

During her lean years, her personal life was also jolted. Golf star Rory McIlroy broke their engagement by phone in May 2014 shortly after their wedding invitations were sent out.

Last year Wozniacki fell in love with another handsome prince, retired NBA All-Star David Lee, and in November the couple became engaged. In a happy place, “Sunshine,” a nickname given for her cheery disposition, captured her biggest title up to that point, the season-ending 2017 WTA Finals.

Wozniacki, a strikingly attractive 5' 10" blonde, posed in Sports Illustrated’s Swimsuit issue and ranked behind only Sharapova and Williams in career endorsement earnings among female tennis players. In sharp contrast, Simona Halep, the No. 1 player in the world and also a highly marketable athlete, doesn’t even have a clothing sponsor. Halep revealed she recently purchased her attire online.

Halep mirrors Wozniacki

In several ways, though, Halep’s career trajectory mirrored that of Wozniacki. The 26-year-old Romanian frustratingly lost her first two Grand Slam finals, both close battles at the French Open. In 2014, the veteran Sharapova edged her in a classic encounter, 6-4, 6-7, 6-4. And in 2017, the upstart Jelena Ostapenko overcame a 6-4, 3-0 deficit to shock heavily favoured Halep 4-6, 6-4, 6-3. Darren Cahill, Halep’s coach, said the loss devastated her for months.

Well, finalist Simona Halep came to Melbourne with a new resolve. The “new Simona” impressed, but the horizon proved so near yet so far.   -  AFP

 

Like Halep, the 27-year-old Dane lost her two previous major finals, both in straight sets at the US Open. But she was haunted most by failing to convert a match point in the 2011 Australian Open semifinals against Li Na.

Both protagonists were often mentioned at the top of the dreaded “best player never to win a major” list. Their speedy and tireless counterpunching, it seemed, could only take them so far.

But at the 2018 Australian Open, Wozniacki and Halep displayed a newfound aggressiveness, particularly on their serves and forehands. They would need every bit of it, plus the courage and conviction to execute these shots offensively on pressure points — break points, set points, and, especially match points.

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Wozniacki, seeded No. 2, had a much easier draw, playing no seed higher than No. 19. Ironically, an unseeded opponent, Jana Fett, almost eliminated her in the second round. Wozniacki staved off two match points and recovered from a 1-5 deficit in the deciding set, reeling off six straight games to overcome No.119-ranked Fett 3-6, 6-2, 7-5.

In the semifinals, Wozniacki served for the match at 6-3, 5-4 against another non-seed, Elise Mertens, who earlier had upset No. 4 Elina Svitolina. Wozniacki lost that big game but pulled out the set and match with a 7-2 tiebreaker. “I got really tight at 5-4,” Woz admitted. “That was definitely on my mind.” Wozniacki was referring to her traumatic loss to Li Na seven years earlier. Tournament players never forget heartbreaking defeats.

Halep, seeded No. 1, carried even more scar tissue. Unlike Wozniacki, her fighting spirit had been occasionally questioned. In fact, Cahill was so fed up with her negativity during her loss to Johanna Konta at the 2017 Miami Open that he quit as coach. A few weeks later, he returned as coach after she pledged to always compete and never quit.

Fate would test Halep’s will to win as never before during this memorable fortnight. In the first round, she twisted her left ankle against Aussie wild card Destanee Aiava. For the rest of the tournament, she would need painkillers for that and for right foot plantar fascia that flared up.

Two rounds later, 76th-ranked Lauren Davis, a little (5' 2") American with a huge heart, matched heavily favoured Halep groundstroke for groundstroke for three hours and 44 minutes. At 10-11 in the deciding set, Halep, down love-40, escaped three match points. When the Romanian served for the match, the equally tenacious Davis stymied Halep at 5-4, 6-5, and 8-7. Finally, on her fourth try, Halep prevailed 4-6, 6-4, 15-13, tying the record for the most games for an Aussie Open singles match.

After the marathon, Halep told the captivated crowd, “I’m almost dead.” Later referring to herself as “the old Simona,” she confessed, “I think in the past I would not have fought that hard.”

Marathon woman

But Halep would enthrall fans with yet two more marathons. Her next “popcorn match” came against the resurgent Angelique Kerber, who had won 14 straight matches this year. The 30-year-old German captured two majors in 2016 when she dethroned Serena only to crash in 2017, finishing at No. 21. But in Melbourne, Kerber crushed both Sharapova 6-1, 6-3 and 2017 US Open runner-up Madison Keys 6-1, 6-2 before her semifinal showdown with Halep.

Angelique Kerber put up a great fight before being brought to her knees by Halep in the semifinals.   -  GETTY IMAGES

 

Halep led 6-3, 3-1, 40-30 before Kerber charged back, winning five straight games to even the match at 6-3, 4-6. The deciding set would turn into a classic. Halep, known for her speedy gallop, showcased her new shot wallop. With both players looking exhausted as they exchanged pinpoint, powerful groundstrokes in the 88-degree heat, the more aggressive Halep pulled ahead 5-3.

Could — would — Halep close the deal? “A player has never had more demons trying to close out a deciding set in a major final than Halep,” ESPN analyst Pam Shriver noted.

Those demons returned once again. Kerber finished off a ferocious, 26-shot rally with a backhand winner to break back at 5-4. In the next game, Kerber staved off two match points, the second on another backhand winner. As Kerber tied it at 5-all, fortune clearly was favouring the brave.

Serving for the match at 6-5, Kerber had two match points of her own. This time, Halep saved them with explosive forehands. ESPN analyst and former superstar Chris Evert marvelled, “What do you have to do to win a point out here — hit 10 great placements?”

With no tiebreakers to decide the final set and no clock to end the contest, the battle raged on at 6-all. Both warriors were playing their best tennis when they were behind. Halep belted a forehand winner to hold serve for an 8-7 lead. Kerber fought off a third match point but finally succumbed on the fourth. Halep triumphed 6-3, 4-6, 9-7. On Halep’s career-high 50 winners, Evert said, “This is the new Simona.”

But the big question for the new and improved Simona was: Could she recover from this gruelling, roller-coaster match in just 48 hours?

Wozniacki suffered a different problem. The morning before the final, Wozniacki admitted she was “a nervous wreck who needed some calming down.”

But in the opening game, Wozniacki coolly held serve at 15. She then broke Halep’s serve, and held serve with three forehand winners to race to a 3-0 lead. Spectators chanted “See-mow-na” to get her going. The bipartisan crowd wanted a competitive, exciting match. Soon enough they would get a duel as intensely hot as the debilitating 90-degree evening heat.

Halep capitalised on a shaky Wozniacki serving game to break for 4-5. Wozniacki quickly regained her confidence and boldly attacked in a near-perfect tiebreaker, winning 7-2. It was pivotal, if history is any indication, because 42 of the previous 45 Grand Slam titles were won by the player taking the first set. Halep crucially saved four break points in the third game of the second set to lead 2-1. Ahead 3-2, she called for a medical time-out at the changeover, and the trainer took her blood pressure. She sensibly put an ice pack on her shoulders for the first time — Wozniacki had done it on every changeover. If Halep’s body was running on fumes, her spirit was as resolute as ever.

A forehand down-the-line winner gave Halep a service and a 5-3 lead. Serving for the set, Halep managed to escape three break points and take the game and set, 6-3. Once again, Halep stared adversity in the eye, and adversity blinked.

History hangs on deciding set

Both competitors, and especially Halep, were now playing on adrenaline. History hung in the balance in the final set, as they were tantalisingly reminded when they glanced at the Daphne Akhurst Memorial Cup sitting close to centre court.

The unseeded Elise Mertens made the semifinals, but could do precious little except to send the second set into the tiebreaker against Wozniacki.   -  GETTY IMAGES

 

Wozniacki drew first blood, breaking for a 2-0 lead. Like a dangerous wounded animal on the prowl, Halep kept attacking, and on her sixth break point of a marathon, 18-point game, broke back for 2-1. “You have to admire Halep,” said Evert. “We know how (exhausted) she’s feeling.”

With Halep feeling her weary body and Wozniacki feeling her shaky nerves, they lost their serves the next two games. Both continued to play better when they were behind. Wozniacki’s forehand was breaking down but her superior defence and stamina kept her in the match. Two more service breaks made the score 4-all. Serving at 4-5, Halep, who had belted 40 winners, valiantly tried to keep pace. But at the pivotal 30-all point, Wozniacki retrieved brilliantly, regained the offensive, and then wrong-footed Halep for a forehand winner. Halep then netted a backhand, and the dramatic 7-6, 3-6, 6-4 duel was over.

Wozniacki fell on her back and cried tears of joy. After they embraced at the net, Halep buried her face in a towel.

“It was an incredible match, an incredible fight,” Wozniacki told the cheering crowd in Rod Laver Arena. “I’ve dreamt of this moment for so many years.” In her 43rd Grand Slam tournament and after a lot of heartbreak, the persistent Dane had captured her first major title and re-captured the No. 1 ranking. “It’s surreal. I knew today was going to be an incredible day, or a day where I’ll be sad leaving the court. It was my day today. I’m just so thankful.”

Twice the empathic Wozniacki apologised, “I’m sorry,” to Halep.

“It’s not easy to talk,” Halep told the crowd. “Of course, I’m sad, but Caroline was better than me.”

In defeat, Halep was still a winner. She fought so hard despite so much adversity in so many epic matches. She left it all on the court, in today’s sports jargon. So much so that she felt ill from the effects of dehydration and went to the hospital at 3:30 a.m. and received an IV injection of fluids. Ivan Lendl and Andy Murray won multiple Grand Slam titles after dropping their first four major finals. Will Halep emulate them? Or will she go Slam-less like Dinara Safina, another three-time loser in major finals?

“I have no doubt Halep will win a Grand Slam,” predicted Evert. “It’s anybody’s match now in women’s tennis. We saw a wide-open field here with great quality tennis.” The legendary Serena Williams returns to competition in March. Her exciting quest to surpass Margaret Court’s record 24 major titles should make the field a lot less wide open.