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Prize for perseverance

Christopher Clarey New York Times News Service Feb 4 2018, 0:44 IST

One by one, former Grand Slam champions welcomed Caroline Wozniacki to the club last Saturday night at Melbourne Park after her victory over Simona Halep. Billie Jean King was first. She handed the beaming Wozniacki the Daphne Akhurst Memorial Cup, which is awarded to the women's singles champion at the Australian Open.

Chris Evert and Mats Wilander were next. Rod Laver chimed in on Twitter. So did Serena Williams, Wozniacki's friend and tennis role model, after watching her breakthrough match on television in the United States.

It took Wozniacki more than a decade to join the club by winning her first major singles title, and it required two final weeks of struggle in Melbourne. She had to save two match points in the second round and shrug off a mental lapse while serving for the match in the semifinals. She then had to summon the guts, the energy and the accuracy on the run to prevail against Halep, weary but still dangerous, in the 2-hour-49-minute final played on a sweltering Australian summer evening.

"I think I had everything else on my résumé," Wozniacki said later, the trophy glittering by her side. "No. 1, year-end championships, big tournaments, 27 titles. I basically have beaten any player that has been playing that is on tour right now. This was the only thing missing, and it means something extra even that it took a little longer, but I still made it here."

Halep knows all too well about delayed gratification. She is now 0-3 in major single finals and has lost all of them in three sets.

"It's fine," she said later. "I cried, but now I'm smiling. Is just a tennis match in the end. But yeah, I'm really sad I couldn't win it. It was close again, but the gas was over in the end. She was better. She was fresher. She had actually more energy in the end."

Such a happy ending for Wozniacki looked highly unlikely in the second round of the tournament when she faced two match points and a 1-5 deficit in the final set against unseeded Jana Fett of Croatia. Wozniacki escaped and went on to win six consecutive games.

"I think that match really helped Caroline with the feeling that she was playing a little bit with house money - that's how we kept putting it," said her fiancé, David Lee, a retired NBA player who was courtside for all of her matches in Melbourne. "I was sitting there planning what I was going to say to her after the match to help cheer her up, and next thing you know you are moving - so it was really, really special."

Wozniacki and Lee became engaged in Bora Bora in November. Both she and her father and coach, Piotr Wozniacki, have said that feeling happy and settled in her personal life has helped her on the court.

"Obviously sport and life are all connected," Lee said. "When you're happy off the court, I think that makes a difference, and she's got that stability. She knows that whatever happens in tennis, she's got a great support system, and I'm happy to be a part of that."

Wozniacki's win was, perhaps above all, a father-daughter moment. High-profile coaches have come and gone in the Wozniacki camp, but Piotr has been a constant in her tennis career.

"I think we both deserve this," she said. "It's just special that when I started playing tennis at 7 years old, he was there. It was training at 11 pm or 10 pm when I was 10 years old. My dad was there. When it was raining. When it was hot. He was always there by my side, and I think this means a lot to both of us."

This was the first Grand Slam final in the Open era between women who had both faced match points in the tournament. Wozniacki and Halep had also both lost their previous two major finals. But Wozniacki is now the first player from Denmark to win a major singles title.

She lost the 2009 US Open final to Kim Clijsters and the 2014 US Open final to Williams. Both opponents were aggressive baseliners, with power in abundance, and they took the initiative against the more defensive-minded Wozniacki.

She said she briefly considered retirement in 2016 when recurring physical problems, particularly a severe ankle injury, contributed to her drop in the rankings. Wozniacki was at No 74 before the 2016 US Open, but reached the semifinals and has now made it all the way back to the top.

She has changed her game in recent seasons and improved her serve and forehand. Wozniacki still relies on her outstanding coverage and consistency from the baseline, but she has added a dose of risk to the mix. It helped her win the WTA Finals - the elite, eight-women, season-ending championship - last year. That was her most significant title until the Australian Open.

It has been quite a process. Though Wozniacki is just 27, this was her 43rd appearance in a Grand Slam singles tournament. Flavia Pennetta, Marion Bartoli and Jana Novotna are the only women to have played in more before winning a first major trophy.

The first time Wozniacki played the Australian Open, as a 17-year-old in 2008, she reached the fourth round. She rose to No 1 in October 2010 and - with the exception of one week - held the top spot until January 2012. She faced questions all through that run about her inability to win a Grand Slam title.

"I'm No 1 in the world. I'm 20 years old, so I think I'm doing fine," she said in an interview in May 2011. "Obviously, of course, I'd like to win a Grand Slam, but I don't put pressure on myself. Next year. This year. In three years."

It took nearly seven, and it was sweet. No one else will ask her whether she will ever be able to win a Grand Slam singles title - a question she joked Saturday night that she had heard "a hundred thousand times."

(Or maybe she wasn't joking).

"I think that's one of the most positive things about all this: I'm never going to get that question again," she said. "I'm just waiting for the question, When are you going to win the second one?"

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