by Matt Zemek
The 2017 Australian Open created fairy-tale endings: Serena versus Venus Williams in the women’s final, and Rafael Nadal versus Roger Federer in the men’s final. Entering the 2017 women’s final, the two finalists had combined to win 29 major titles (22 for Serena, 7 for Venus). Entering the 2017 men’s final, the two finalists had combined to win 31 majors (17 for Federer, 14 for Nadal).
One year later, those numbers have swelled. Serena and Venus now combine for 30 majors, and with Fedal winning all four trophies in the 2017 Grand Slam season, they now combine for 35 (19 Fed, 16 Rafa).
That’s 65 majors among four giants of the sport, verily, four foremost icons of this era in tennis history.
Serena doesn’t relish playing her sister, but there was something beautiful and especially resonant about breaking Steffi Graf’s mark of 22 majors — all won in the Open Era — with big sis on the other side of the net, there to share the moment with her.
The men’s final was much easier to view as a fairy tale: Federer slayed his demons in five-set matches against Nadal, beating Rafa in a five-setter for the first time in 10 very long years (Wimbledon 2007). Federer came back from a break deficit in the fifth to beat his greatest rival and the player who has given him the most trouble in his storied career. Federer — by breaking a 4.5-year major title drought in that way against that opponent — wrote the peRFect ending to his 2017 Australian Open.
The final battles at the 2017 Australian Open — men and women — captured the imagination of sports fans everywhere. The greatest of the great competed for two very large slices of added tennis history. I don’t know much about international football (soccer, as we Americans call it), but I know enough to realize that last year’s Australian Open finals were like having Real Madrid against Barcelona. They were the kinds of tennis matches casual fans stop to watch. They were the kinds of matches which gain complete global attention.
The 2018 Australian Open women’s final is not that kind of match… but it is a fairy tale just the same. It’s not the meeting of tennis gods on Mount Olympus, no, but it is profoundly beautiful in its own way.
This is the passion play of poignancy, one of the most emotionally intense major finals any of us will witness.
I have watched major-tournament tennis since 1982, when I was six years old. At my grandparents’ house in Phoenix, Arizona, my grandfather would always have the major golf tournaments on TV when my parents took me and my brother to see Grandma and Grandpa for the Sunday lunches we always had as an extended family when I was growing up.
As long as I have followed tennis and golf, I have watched tennis with much more interest, but even for golf, I have always been struck by the power and depth of the emotions that pour forth when a great player finally wins a first major championship. Many of us saw this when Sergio Garcia won The Masters last year. A long and very successful career would not have been “a failure” without a major title (think of Colin Montgomerie), but winning a major puts a stamp of added validation on a career in golf or tennis. A major makes a career complete in a way it previously wasn’t.
Great tennis players and golfers pursue a major title more than anything else. Being No. 1 is a huge deal, but that major trophy — being a champion — is the ultimate goal. It is the Super Bowl for their own careers in solo-athlete sports.
The moment when a tennis or golf player of considerable distinction wins a first major is always a powerfully emotional moment. The weight of the occasion is magnified when that player wins a first major at an appreciably advanced point in a career, as shown by Sergio last year in golf.
For the 26-year-old Halep and the 27-year-old Wozniacki, an avalanche of catharsis, validation and relief await on Saturday as the prizes which will accompany victory… but only one can claim them. The winner will complete a tennis fairy tale, just a different one compared to what we saw last year with the Williamses and Fedal.
One thing I regularly point out when the occasion merits such commentary is that a tennis player can never fully prepare for that moment when she or he serves for — or sits a few points away from (as a returner) — a first major championship.
A tennis player can think about the moment all she wants. She can spend hours, weeks, months, dreaming of what it will feel like when she serves for an Australian Open championship… but all that thought can’t match the reality of actually being in that position.
Halep led Jelena Ostapenko a set and 3-0, but she never served for the title in last year’s Roland Garros final. She also never served for the 2014 Roland Garros title in her three-set loss to Maria Sharapova.
Wozniacki never served for the title in her two previous major final losses, to Kim Clijsters at the 2009 U.S. Open final and in the 2014 U.S. Open final against Serena Williams.
One of these two profoundly accomplished women will write the final chapter in a fairy tale they have been dreaming about throughout their careers, but they will have to walk over the hot coals of nerves to do so. My one hope for this final: that the losing player doesn’t blow a big lead or flinch when serving for the title.
There is no cheering from the press box (or in my case, from my keyboard at home), but I would like to think that tennis writers around the world inwardly hope that the losing player won’t have to bear a scar which is any larger than necessary on Saturday night in Melbourne.
Hopefully, the fairy tale which is written for one player will not diminish what the runner-up has achieved over the past fortnight.