Caroline Wozniacki has done just about everything in tennis – except walk away. So it was striking on the eve of her farewell at the tournament where she won her only slam that the Dane declared she had no idea how she would handle her emotions when she walks out to play Kristie Ahn, the world No 92 coming off a first-round loss in qualifying in Auckland.
Such a fixture would not normally induce apprehension in a player who only two years ago briefly returned to No 1 in the world after winning the Australian Open. But the 29-year-old Wozniacki, who used to run marathons for fun and was long regarded as one of the fittest players in the game, has endured struggle at just the time when she ought to be enjoying her best years.
It was no surprise when she announced before Christmas that she would quit tennis after Melbourne, given she had just experienced a winless season – for the first time since 2007 – a stubborn viral infection and the onset of rheumatoid arthritis.
Contemplating a campaign in the small corner of the draw that contains her best friend, Serena Williams (they could meet in the fourth round, if she gets past Johanna Konta), Wozniacki tried her best to be philosophical. “I’ve approached it like any other tournament but it’s different, since it’s my last one,” she said, forcing a smile. “I’ve had some great practice sessions. I’ve done everything I could to prepare as well as I can for this tournament, then hope for the best.”
As for how she will feel when play starts in the Melbourne Arena, she said: “I have no idea. It’s not a situation that I’ve ever been in. So far I’m calm and just enjoying myself. I have my family here, which is great. I’m sure once the last ball is hit, it’s going to be a bit emotional. I love the sport, I love everything that it’s given me, I love being out there and competing. But I’m ready to start a new chapter in my life. Life is short. I know that the tennis career is short.”
She spared a thought for Kim Clijsters, whom she lost to in her first grand slam final, at Flushing Meadows in 2009, and who has launched an improbable comeback at 36 after being away from the game for seven years. “I think it’s tough,” Wozniacki said. “I personally don’t think she can [be a contender again]. She can prove me wrong. I think tennis has changed in seven years. I don’t think it’s as easy. I don’t know if she thinks it’s easy. I know it’s not as easy as it looks from the outside.”
Last week in New Zealand, Wozniacki and Williams enjoyed themselves in doubles, without pressing for the title. “It’s probably the most fun I’ve had on court,” Wozniacki said. “We had a blast. We would pretend to talk tactics. We really would talk about everything else.”
Williams, meanwhile, is carrying a bigger weight of history in Melbourne. Looking on from a discrete distance when she plays Anastasia Potapova in the second match on Rod Laver Arena on Monday will be Margaret Court, a pariah or icon, according to taste. The 77-year-old Australian, reviled for her throwback views on sexuality and other moral issues, won 24 majors. Williams owns 23, 13 on hardcourt, seven of them here, most recently in 2017 when she was eight weeks pregnant. But the 38-year-old American has not added to her list of slams since giving birth to Olympia that September, although she was thrilled her daughter was there to celebrate her tournament victory in Auckland last week.
Potapova, a 18-year-old Muscovite yet to win a title and ranked 90 in the world, should provide at least token resistance but after that there is not much for Williams to worry about until one of Wozniacki, Dayana Yastremska or Konta are in place to give her grief in round four.
While Konta should beat Ons Jabeur in her first match, her lingering knee pain, which she has suffered with in silence since the Brisbane Open last year, might be a problem over the long haul. She has already pulled out of the Fed Cup, which starts a week after the end of this first slam of the season.
For Britain’s small but determined group, then, the 2020 Australian Open could be another short, grim experience, despite guarded optimism about the future. On Tuesday, Heather Watson, who reached the semi-finals in Hobart, plays the lesser Pliskova, Krystina. In the same quarter Katie Boulter, a rousing first-round winner a year ago against Ekaterina Makarova, has a tough ask against the fifth seed, Elina Svitolina. Harriet Dart, who found Maria Sharapova across the net from her in the first round last year, plays Misaki Doi, world No 80.