“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, a Romanian, will lose her No. 1 ranking to Wozniacki on Monday, and 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.
“Maybe the fourth time will be with luck,” she said in her remarks to the crowd at Laver Arena, before leaving the court.
“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.”
This much-anticipated final was tight and tense from the beginning. The spectators sounded as divided as tennis fans in general with roughly equal support being expressed for “Caro!” and “Simona!”
The match turned into a grueling fitness test, with both finalists breathing hard, even on the changeovers. Eventually each took a medical timeout.
Extended rallies were the rule. There were 50 exchanges that lasted nine shots or more; 50 others that lasted from five to eight shots.
This was no surprise in light of the speed and defensive skills that both women possess, but it made for quite a challenge.
Momentum shifted repeatedly. Wozniacki took a 3-0 lead to start before Halep reeled her in to force a tiebreaker that Wozniacki, playing aggressively — particularly down the line — was able to dominate.
Halep won he second set despite taking a medical timeout when leading, 3-2, because of dizziness and a headache. She looked woozy even while closing out the set, but the 10-minute off-court break both players were allowed before the third set because of the heat allowed them to cool down.
The match kept tossing and turning. Wozniacki went up, 3-1, in the third set only to lose three straight games. But just when it seemed that Halep might definitively have the edge, Wozniacki, down, 3-4, took a medical timeout to have her left leg taped below the knee.
After play resumed, she did not lose another game.
Neither Halep nor her coach, Darren Cahill, cried foul over Wozniacki’s break, even if 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.”
With Halep serving at 4-5, 30-30, Wozniacki won one of the match’s best rallies: an 18-shot duel that forced her to sprint from corner to corner and come 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 hit the deck, immediately throwing her racket in the air and then 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 to the crowd as she cradled the Cup that she was already calling Daphne.
But she spared a word for Halep, too.
“I know today is a tough day,” she said, turning to face her opponent. “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 as if she meant it.
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 N.B.A. 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.”
She also sprained her left ankle in her first-round victory. It all took a physical toll, and she said she was unable to practice for more than “15 minutes” between matches during the tournament. Cahill said much of the pain was in her right foot because of compensating for her left ankle.
“It’s swollen, my right one,” Halep said of her foot. “Both of them are dead. That’s why I need a break.”
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 United States Open final to Kim Clijsters and the 2014 United States Open final to Williams. Both opponents were aggressive base liners, 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. She was at No. 74 before the 2016 United States Open, but reached the semifinals and has now made it all the way back to the top.
But 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 Saturday’s.
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 on 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?”