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    AUSTRALIAN OPEN

    Caroline Wozniacki beats Simona Halep to win first Grand Slam title

    Denmark's Caroline Wozniacki becomes tearful after defeating Romania's Simona Halep in the women's singles final at the Australian Open tennis championships in Melbourne, Australia, Saturday, Jan. 27, 2018. (AP Photo/Andy Brownbill)
    Associated Press/Andy Brownbill
    Denmark's Caroline Wozniacki becomes tearful after defeating Romania's Simona Halep in the women's singles final at the Australian Open tennis championships in Melbourne, Australia, on Saturday.

    MELBOURNE — One drought was guaranteed to end in the Australian Open women’s final Saturday, and relief came for Caroline Wozniacki.

    A dramatic 7-6 (7-2), 3-6, 6-4 victory over Simona Halep gave Wozniacki her first Grand Slam title at last, while depriving Halep of the same satisfaction.

    The victory also allowed second-ranked Wozniacki to unseat Halep as the world No. 1. Wozniacki regained the top ranking six years after she last held it.

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    On a muggy night in Melbourne, this final was tight and tense from the beginning. It became a grueling fitness test, with both players taking one medical timeout and breathing hard in their chairs on changeovers.

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    Long rallies were in abundance — no surprise in light of the speed and defensive skills that both women possess. Momentum shifted repeatedly. And when Wozniacki lost her serve to go down, 3-4, in the third set, it appeared that Halep might finally have gotten the edge.

    Wozniacki then took a medical timeout to have her left leg taped below the knee; once she returned to the court, she did not lose another game.

    Neither Halep nor her coach, Darren Cahill, protested the timing of Wozniacki’s break, even though Halep had to wait longer than usual to serve.

    “Maybe those three minutes were a little bit tough,” Halep said. “But you know the rule is the rule. I don’t complain.”

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    With Halep serving at 4-5, 30-30, Wozniacki won one of the match’s best rallies: an extended duel that forced her to sprint from corner to corner, coming up with a tightly angled backhand on the run that finally allowed her to take control and finish the point with a forehand winner.

    “That was a crazy point,” Wozniacki said.

    It gave her match point, and in light of this tournament, the big surprise was that Halep did not find a way to save it.

    When Halep’s backhand hit the net, Wozniacki immediately threw her racket in the air and hit the deck, crying as she lay on her back with her hands covering her face.

    “I never cry, but today is a very emotional moment,” Wozniacki said in her remarks to the crowd as she cradled the Daphne Akhurst Memorial Cup awarded to the women’s singles champion.

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    Billie Jean King presented the long-awaited prize; Wozniacki already was on a first-name basis with the trophy, calling it “Daphne.”

    But she spared a word for Halep, too.

    “I know today is a tough day,” she said, turning to face her opponent, who is now 0-3 in Grand Slam singles finals. “I’m sorry I had to win today, but I’m sure we’ll have many matches in the future. It was an incredible match, incredible fight, and again, I’m sorry.”

    She sounded like she meant it, and Halep maintained her composure.

    “Maybe the fourth time will be with luck,” she said in her remarks to the crowd.

    Such an ending for Wozniacki looked highly unlikely in the second round of the tournament, when second-seeded Wozniacki faced two match points and a 1-5 deficit in the final set against the unseeded Jana Fett of Croatia. Wozniacki escaped and then won six straight 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 were 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.”

    Halep had saved match points of her own, five in total over two matches: her third-round victory over American Lauren Davis and her semifinal victory over former No. 1 Angelique Kerber.

    That made this Grand Slam final the first 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 the speedy Wozniacki became 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 Serena Williams. Both opponents were aggressive base liners, with power in abundance, and they took the initiative against the more defensive-minded Wozniacki.

    But she has changed her game in recent seasons and improved her serve. 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 — in October. That was her most significant title until Saturday.

    It has been a long chase.

    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.

    “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?”