Two women, two dreams, one trophy


On Saturday evening, Simona Halep, 26, and Caroline Wozniacki, 27, will walk down a curving corridor, past Hingis and Safin, Li Na and Newcombe, Graf and Federer, turn left, descend nine steps and wait to be called onto Rod Laver Arena for judgment. While they wait they might read a quote from Laver which is displayed on a screen: "The time your game is most vulnerable is when you're ahead, never let up."

This glowing corridor is the Walk of Champions, a winding trail of triumph on whose walls sits history. On those walls are 24 long blue boards on either side, which list previous Open champions. The names who made it, the names who matter, the company these two players, who have never won a Grand Slam title, want to keep.

What do you play for in tennis? Love, joy, satisfaction, competition, running, tour titles, No. 1, but also this. The Grand Slams. Four cities that you know, four stadiums you recognise, four fortnights you wait for, four trophies which have become the confirmation of ability, the validation of hard work, the compensation for all defeat.

Even though No. 1 was once sweeter than a Slam for her, Chris Evert told The Straits Times yesterday that a Grand Slam title is "like a stamp of excellence that will stay with you forever. You are in the history books, you are one of the greats".

She won 18 singles Grand Slam titles and the feeling which followed each one is engraved in her memory. "I gotta tell you, when I won a Grand Slam and I held the trophy up over my head, I felt on top of the world, I felt invincible, (it was) unlike any another feeling I have ever felt."

The Grand Slam title, especially in this era, is the lure, the dream, the alarm clock. For some it just comes naturally, like Ken Rosewall, who won the first Grand Slam final he ever contested; for others it never came like Jan Lehane who lost four consecutive Australian Open finals from 1960-63; and for a rare breed like Flavia Pennetta it comes at their final Slam.

Later, the Italian, who won the 2015 US Open, said: "You lose so many things when you're young. I mean, with this, winning today, my life is perfect." Perhaps what she was saying was that the Grand Slam title is fulfilling, it's a relief, it is a silver trophy for suffering, it is repayment for every shed tear.

Caroline Wozniacki celebrating after defeating Elise Mertens in the semi-finals of the Australian Open on Jan 25, 2018. PHOTO: EPA-EFE

"I often say to players," said Evert, "who lose close matches in Grand Slams year after year after year, I say it will be worth it when you have that one moment, when everything comes together, mentally, emotionally, physically and you win... it's all worth it, every depressing moment you have had in your career, it's all worth it, that one high."

Both Wozniacki and Halep know what depressing feels like in tennis, they know what it's like to come close. The Dane has been to two finals at the US Open in 2009 and 2014 and served for the match against Li Na in the Australian Open semis in 2011. She lost. The Romanian got to the 2014 French Open final and then led Jelena Ostepenko by a set and 3-0 at the French final in 2017. She lost.

So what does an athlete do? Sulk, cry, scream? Maybe, but also grind, believe, try. Go back to practice, wear injuries, think positive, learn, and hope for a little luck. Go to another Slam and answer questions on why you haven't won and yet believe you can. Go on because there's nothing else you know how to do.

Hard work has to pay, it's the only philosophy to have. My time will come, it's the only way to think. Esna Boyd lost five consecutive Australian Open finals in the 1920s and won her sixth. Kim Clijsters lost her first four Grand Slam finals and then won four titles. There is hope out there, there are stories through history, there is proof to hold on to.

Both these women are different, Wozniacki taller, Halep funnier, the Dane 4-2 ahead in the head-to-head, the No. 1 Romanian ahead by one place in the rankings. Tenacity is what binds them and athleticism connects them. Both saved match points on the way to the final and are sisters of speed who run down balls faster than they belt them.

Simona Halep preparing to serve to Angelique Kerber during their women's singles semi-final match at the Australian Open on Jan 25, 2018. PHOTO: AFP

Halep, who speaks with the most charming candour, explained in four words the significance of the final. She was asked by a reporter that while No. 1 is an incredible achievement what would it mean to her to be a Grand Slam champion and she didn't hesitate.

"Bigger than No. 1, honestly."

It makes this final different, makes it almost endearing, tense, emotional, for something equal and massive rides on it for both women. "It will change their life," said Evert. To be precise, one life. Two women will walk down that corridor on Saturday but only a single name will go up on the walls. History, you know, always comes with heartbreak.

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