2018 Australian Open review

In the first women’s Grand Slam final featuring the two top seeds since Serena Williams beat Maria Sharapova in Melbourne three years ago, world number one Simona Halep faced off against world number two Caroline Wozniacki, with everything on the line. Both players had previously reached number one in the world without winning a Slam – an unpopular feat amongst a particular type of tennis fan, both had lost their previous two Grand Slam finals (both at the French Open for Halep and the US Open for Wozniacki) and, as well as winning their first Grand Slam, the winner would also take the world number one ranking.

How did they get there? Well, it took some doing. Both players had their troubles in the early rounds. Wozniacki fought back from 1-5, 15-40 down against Jana Fett in the second round, while Halep edged her way past Lauren Davis in a marathon third round clash, taking the final set 15-13 and saving three match points along the way. Following these early troubles, Wozniacki had the easier draw, steaming past Kiki Bertens and Magdalena Rybarikova before coming through a tricky three-set quarter final against Carla Suarez Navarro. She cruised through the majority of her semi final against Elise Mertens but had to battle through a serious bout of nerves at the tail end of the second set, before taking it in a tie break.

By comparison, Halep’s path to the final seemed much tougher. While she found her best form to record surprisingly easy wins over Naomi Osaka and Karolina Pliskova, she was forced to dig to her very deepest against the WTA’s form player, 2016 champion Angelique Kerber, in an incredible three-set semi final. Both players saw match points come and go in an exceptional third set, before Halep came through 9-7.

The final was equally tense and compelling. Wozniacki came out better, broke early and served for the first set before Halep came back and took her to a tie break, which Wozniacki edged. The quality dropped slightly in the second set with both players suffering in extreme heat and humidity. A medical time out for Halep part way through the set gave her the edge and she took the set 6-3.

The heat rule was in play, giving both women a 10 minute break before the third set. Wozniacki seemed stronger on the resumption, breaking Halep twice to take a 3-1 lead, before the Romanian stormed back to lead 4-3 with a break. At this stage, it was Wozniacki’s turn for a medical time out, having tape applied to her knee. From then on, she didn’t lose another game, breaking Halep twice to win the set 6-4, and with it her first Grand Slam title and the world number one ranking.

It’s been six years since Wozniacki last held the top spot and her victory removes the asterisk that has overshadowed her since she first became world number one – the fact that she’d made it without winning a Grand Slam title. Whether or not she’ll go on to win more Grand Slams remains to be seen. Historically she’s performed best at the US Open and I wouldn’t be surprised to see her make a third final there in September.

How did everyone else fare? A special mention for Kerber, whose unbeaten run from the Hopman Cup and Sydney finally came to an end against Halep in the semis. Along the way, she thrashed two Maria Sharapova and Madison Keys for the combined loss of only seven games, and was agonisingly close to beating Halep. It appeared that playing so many matches this year finally took its toll but, if she can perform at that level for the remainder of the year, she’ll be a force to be reckoned with.

Mertens’ run to the semi finals came on her first main draw appearance in Melbourne, and saw her beat home favourite Daria Gavrilova, the more experienced Alize Cornet and Petra Martic and world number four Elina Svitolina. In my blog last week, I predicted that she could become a top 20 player in 2018, but I wasn’t expecting it to happen so quickly.

My pick for the final, fourth seed Elina Svitolina, looked very good in the early rounds but came unstuck in a one-sided defeat to the unfancied Mertens in the quarter finals. Despite winning numerous WTA titles in recent years, Svitolina has looked fragile in Grand Slams, never going past the quarter finals. Once again, she has big questions to ask herself.

The first two rounds saw early exits for a number of big names, among them last year’s runner-up Venus Williams, Wimbledon champion Garbiñe Muguruza and US Open champion Sloane Stephens, as well as 2017 Grand Slam semi finalists Coco Vandeweghe and Jo Konta. Out of the ashes came unlikely runs for the likes of Su-Wei Hsieh, Denisa Allertova, Luksika Kumkhum and Bernarda Pera, creating some entertaining stories across the first week.

Story of the week: Wozniacki is a Grand Slam champion.

The tournament saw some great stories. Halep vs Davis, Halep vs Kerber, Su-Wei Hsieh’s fantastic run and Elise Mertens making the semi finals on her debut. But they all pale in comparison to Wozniacki’s story, finally winning a Grand Slam title and taking back the world number one ranking six years after she last had it – the longest gap in history.

Shock of the week: Kumkhum crushes bigged-up Bencic.

After Jo Konta eased past Madison Brengle in the first round, I expected an equally straightforward victory over Bernarda Pera in the second round. Instead, it was Pera, a lucky loser, who came through in straight sets. But, my shock of the week was Luksika Kumkhum’s demolition of Belinda Bencic in the second round. Though Bencic’s ranking was 77, her recent form and first round win over Venus Williams marked her out as a title contender. Instead, she was thrashed 6-1 6-3 by the Thai.

Player of the tournament: Caroline Wozniacki.

While I believe Halep and Kerber played better tennis than Wozniacki at times during the fortnight, the champion is clearly the player of the tournament for having the grit to push herself to the victory.

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