WOZ CONQUERS OZ

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MELBOURNE, Photo by Clive Brunskill/Getty Images

Caroline Wozniacki and Simona Halep were two boxers. In and out, probing and battling, hitting out, then suffering painful jabs. Each was on the ropes – then off. Each would wrest control – seemingly in command – only to let the match’s oh-so-elusive momentum slip through her fingers – so frustrating!

Breathless, they fought – then bent over in excruciating fatigue. Their confidence waned. So much was at stake, and there was so little to separate these two savvy veterans, aged 27 and 26, who over the years have endured many a setback and have ample scar tissue.

Last year’s Aussie Open final featured the Williams sisters, who have lived most of their thirty-something years in the same house. You can’t get closer than that.

But tonight we saw a mirror-image commonality: baselining finalists. They were the top two seeds. The winner would be No. 1. They had both survived dicey match point scares to reach the final, and both had suffered crushing defeats in two past Grand Slam finals. Plus, they had experienced well-documented (though very different) rejections. In 2014, Wozniacki’s then fiancé, golfer Rory McIlroy, sadly left her at the altar, so to speak. And last year, coaching guru Darren Cahill had had it with Halep’s attitude and briefly walked away.

“Simona’s a feisty Romanian,” said Chris Evert. “She’s Ilie Nastase, she’s Virginia Ruzici.” Mary Carillo joked, “Halep’s a moody little minsk…[but she] glowed after her Kerber win [in the semis].” Carillo added that she was getting too old to watch close, scintillating matches. Wozniacki and Halep, she observed, “have had so many heartaches and heartbreaks.”

Going into the 2016 US Open it seemed like Wozniacki was almost washed up. She was, rather cruelly, being dismissed as a Slamless wonder. Her 67 weeks at No. 1 got few kudos. She was, shouted the critics, just a speedy defender with a fine backhand – but no real weapons.

Ranked No. 74, she was fighting injuries and suffering horrid losses. But she worked on her forehand, her first serve and her fitness, and she fell in love with NBA star David Lee, who became her new fiancé.

She told Inside Tennis that she is now “feeling happy [and] content off the court. Everything is going great. It helps me play better. I don’t have any worries…It makes a huge difference.”

Wozniacki is a sports freak, a warrior who has been battling since she was a kid. A win over her brother was always key. Boxing was part of her training. She told the press about the pressure golfers feel as they try to sink putts at crunch time. Her hoops-happy fiancé shared tales of NBA triumphs – and she ran the New York Marathon.

But today she knew the importance of sprinting out of the gate. Right away Caro broke and raced to a 3-0 lead. There were whispers – could this be a blowout?

No way. A match of stunning switchbacks, twists and shocks was just warming up.

Halep broke back to even matters – the Romanians roared. But in the first set tiebreak, Wozniacki continued her surprisingly aggressive play. With her fabulous wheels, she defends like a frenetic goalie. Her backhand is a wonder. Her forehand is no longer a liability. Her first serve can damage. And in the tiebreak she used her dazzling corner-to-corner brilliance to score two mini-breaks. She won the tiebreak on – what else – her signature shot, a brilliant down-the-line backhand.

In the second set, boxing fan Wozniacki tried to deliver a knockout punch. But Halep’s tough. She shook off four break points. Fans murmured, seagulls swarmed, trainers appeared and Halep showed that her offensive power could impose. Her forehand was a laser, flashing cross-court or hitting the paint down the line. Yes, her muscles were angry. She was cramping. Early in the tourney she had turned her ankle. Now both feet were rebelling.

But we told you she was feisty. On her third set point she unleashed a wicked drop shot. After 1:39 the second set was hers. “We’ve got an absolute cracker on our hands,” gushed Australian Open radio. Women’s tennis was giving us their best Slam final since Angie Kerber beat Serena here a couple of seasons ago.

During a ten-minute time-out due to the heat, Wozniacki recharged. Yes, she thought, Simona is taking the ball early and forcing me behind the baseline. I need to be more aggressive – I have nothing to lose.

She broke Halep right away. But then, inexplicably, again and again the combatants broke serve, but couldn’t consolidate. There were four breaks in a row. “It’s basically Halep’s legs vs. Wozniacki’s nerves,” observed writer Carole Bouchard.

Halep at last gained her first lead of the match – up 4-3 in the decider. Wozniacki took a medical time-out. Her thigh was wrapped and she unleashed a final – dare we say heroic – push to summit this Slam mountain. Nerves and serves, tight and tired, she seemed en route to a devastating loss. For the second time in eight months Halep came within six points of a Slam. But Wozniacki is nothing if not a great Dane. She said, “Every time I [said to myself] ‘Oh, I can’t do this anymore, I’m exhausted’…We were playing all these crazy long rallies, I was thinking, ‘Okay, I’m looking over there, she looks a little tired, she must be feeling the exact same way or maybe more tired.”‘

Warrior Woz broke back and forged ahead to go ahead 5-4. Then just two points from a possible triumph, there was a frenetic scramble point for the ages, as the combatants sprinted corner to corner with the world at stake. Here were 45 seconds of frenzy: forehand down the line, let cord, scrambling backhand recovery, a wrong-footed forehand winner. Wozniacki prevailed on the penultimate point and then Halep dumped a forehand into the net.

Now Woz embraced the magic of Oz. Her first Slam was secure: 7-6 (2), 3-6, 6-4.

The arena burst into cheers. Tears flowed. The Dane’s beautiful face was a portrait in ecstasy and relief. Her father was elated. Her fiancé beamed. Her pal Serena sent her a tweet.

Caro confided, “I’ve never felt happier.” Denmark had its first ever Slam champion. Now, Wozniacki joked, she might be able to get on the cover of Elle. And, as much as anything, she would never again have to field that dreaded question, “When are you going to win a Slam?”

After all, Woz will always have her moment in Oz.

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