MELBOURNE • Simona Halep and Caroline Wozniacki will be trying to end a long wait for a maiden major crown in the Australian Open final today between the world's two best players.
Both are in their third Grand Slam final - their first in Australia - and both saved match points in earlier rounds to get there.
The title decider will carry extra weight because the winner is guaranteed to be No. 1 next week.
Halep has held that spot since October. Wozniacki is back at No. 2 after a 67-week run at the top in 2010 and 2011.
"This, to me, is one of the most story-packed Major finals in a long, long time that doesn't involve one of the greats, meaning Serena (Williams), Rafa (Nadal) or Roger (Federer)," said Pam Shriver, an ESPN analyst and a former US Open finalist.
Wozniacki, 27, and Halep, 26, are the most successful active players who have yet to win a major title.
Wozniacki is in her 43rd Grand Slam tournament and with a win will regain top spot, six years after last holding the position - the longest gap between stints at the top since computerised rankings were introduced in 1975.
[Porta ac consectetur ac morbi leo risus]
It is the first time in Grand Slam history that both finalists have saved match points en route to the final. Halep is the first to do it more than once, saving five in total - three against Lauren Davis in the fourth round and two against Angelique Kerber in their semi-final. Wozniacki saved two against unseeded Jana Fett in the second round.
She lost both of her previous Major finals in straight sets - the 2009 US Open final against Kim Clijsters and the 2014 US Open final to Williams. And her semi-final defeat by China's Li Na at Melbourne Park in 2011 when she had a match point counts among her most disappointing losses.
But after dismissing rumours of retirement in Melbourne a year ago, she has built plenty of momentum, winning her biggest title yet at last October's WTA Finals in Singapore.
"I always believed in myself," said the Dane of making another major final. "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 for it."
Halep has come much closer to breaking through, losing 4-6, 7-6 (7-5), 4-6 to Maria Sharapova in the 2014 French Open final, and agonisingly, to Jelena Ostapenko, an unseeded 20-year-old from Latvia, 6-4, 4-6, 3-6, in last year's French Open final.
The Romanian led 3-0 in the second set with three break points in the fourth game. She was also up 3-1 in the final set before dropping the final five games.
"She had tears a lot of nights for months after that, with the memory of that and being so close and playing so well, and that one sort of slipping through her fingers," said Darren Cahill, Halep's coach. "But I give her credit. With all the sorts of kicks in the stomach she's had, to be able to keep coming out and keep putting herself in positions and keep winning and keep doing what she has done, it shows she has a remarkable strength inside."
Stakes aside, the final has the potential to be a thriller because of their similar game styles - based on defence, fluid court coverage and highly selective risk-taking.
Both have improved the offensive parts of their game, with Wozniacki serving faster and hitting her forehand harder than last year. Halep's aggression is evident in her 81 forehand and 40 backhand winners so far in the tournament.
"I feel more experienced. Also stronger mentally," Halep, in her 31st Grand Slam, said.
"And the way I play, it's different. I feel I'm more aggressive. I did 50 winners (in the 6-3, 4-6, 9-7 semi-final win against Angelique Kerber). Eight aces, if you can imagine."
Today, either Halep or Wozniacki will require no imagination. Her biggest dream will become a reality.
AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE, NYTIMES
Women's singles final: Singtel TV Ch114 & StarHub Ch208, 4pm.