By Jane Voigt
Neither has won a Grand Slam. Both have had their chances. And that’s the stage on which Simona Halep and Caroline Wozniacki — the top two seeds — will step Saturday as each competes for their first major plus the number one ranking.
By all measures they should’ve been out of the draw. Halep saved three match points against Lauren Davis, winning 15-13 in the last set; and, she saved match points against Angelique Kerber, winning 9-7 in the third. Wozniacki was in a deeper hole against Jana Fett, down 15-40 and 1-5 in the final set in the Dane’s second-round nail-biter.
Halep’s résilience in these critical Grand Slam moments is new and a welcome change. She lead Jelena Ostapenko in the French Open final last year, but let the advantage go and lost.
“I was in this position in French Open, so maybe I can make a better match,” Halep told the press yesterday, after ousting 2016 Champion Kerber in their semifinal. “I can make it more relaxed going on court just to fight for the balls, for the games, and not for the match. Just step by step. I don’t want to think about the result, as I did during this [French Open] tournament.”
Halep’s ankle seemed problematic almost two weeks ago, as she sat in her hotel room. But that glitch has also passed.
“No, I didn’t believe that [I’d be here] because it was pretty bad,” she said. “I just got confidence after that match that I could continue and win it, the first round, and that’s why maybe I believed that my ankle will be fine during all the matches.”
Halep is a defender and thrives on rhythm, loving the fight that comes with longer rallies. But that strategy is risky and rough on her body and mind, if points don’t go her way. Therefore Kerber, a similar strategist, forced Halep to end rallies sooner. As a result, she hit 50 winners.
“I was aggressive,” Halep began. “I had this in my mind. I wanted to finish the points quicker.”
Wozniacki will present the same set of challenges for Halep: athletic; speedy around court; and a keen ability to change the direction of the ball — one of the most difficult proposals for any tennis player, especially on a faster hard court. Additionally, Wozniacki has beaten Halep in their last three matches.
“I don’t want to change anything,” Halep said, when asked about her approach against Wozniacki. “It’s a normal match. Similar, actually, like today. I have to work. I’m ready for it.”
This will be Halep’s and Wozniacki’s third Grand Slam final. As mentioned Halep lost to Ostapenko at the French Open in 2017. Additionally, she lost to Maria Sharapova at the same major in 2014. Wozniacki’s attempts at history were on hard courts at the U.S. Open. In 2009 she lost to Kim Clijsters; and, in 2014 she went down to Serena Williams.
Losses in major finals have helped them. Yet the hurdle to actually close out one and win an inaugural Grand Slam looms. Wozniacki solidified her ability to finish against Fett.
“At 5-1, 40-15, I felt like I was one foot out of the tournament. She served a great serve down the tee. It was slightly out. I was lucky,” Wozniacki said. “I was thinking, at that point, she still has to win four more balls to win this match, and don’t make it easy for her.”
If Wozniacki wins the title she’ll return to number one for the first time since 2012 with the biggest of trophies in hand. When she was on top of the charts in 2010 and 2011, she was frequently criticized for being number one and not having won a slam. However, she always believes in herself. Considering that she was ranked outside the top 100 last year, Wozniacki upswing impresses.
“I always believed in myself,” she began. “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.”
Saturday’s final will be measured in increments because neither woman has a clear, dominating hard asset, for example, a blistering serve like Serena Williams. Wozniacki probably has the edge mentally, although Halep has improved in that critical department. She will have to build a wall between herself and her tendency to go all negative. Wozniacki feeds off that situation.
“You don’t give up,” Wozniacki began. “Even if it’s a board game, tennis, soccer. Whatever it is.”
The last time the top two seeds met in the final of a tournament, including Grand Slams, was at the Australian Open in 2015. That fact alone adds a heap of weight to the match. But what’s more important: Being number one in the world or winning a Grand Slam?
For Halep the answer is crystal clear, “Bigger than number one, honestly.”