Caroline Wozniacki’s career ended as it played out – with a lot of fight and a big smile.
The former world number one announced last month that the Australian Open, the scene of her greatest triumph when she broke her grand slam duck in 2018, would also be the stage for her professional farewell at the age of 29.
Wozniacki would have hoped to stretch out the goodbye a little longer but Tunisian Ons Jabeur made her own grand slam breakthrough with a 7-5 3-6 7-5 victory.
“There’s a lot of emotions, a lot of things I can’t compartmentalise now,” said the Dane.
“The fact that it’s gone so quick but at the same time it feels like I’ve been out here for a long time. Players coming up to me and congratulating me. Just feeling the love from everyone has been very special.”
Wozniacki had staged a trademark fightback to beat Dayana Yastremska in the second round and looked like she might do the same when she recovered from 0-3 in the deciding set.
But Jabeur, the first Arab woman to make the last 16 at a slam, had not read the script and Wozniacki pushed a forehand long on the first match point.
In a tearful post-match interview, she made a joke about the shot that has been her major weakness, saying: “I think it was only fitting that my last match would be a three-setter, a grinder, and that I would finish my career with a forehand error.”
At her press conference later, she added: “Throughout the match there were a couple of times where I was like, ‘Shoot, this could be my last one’. It was just like, ‘I don’t want it to be the last one, I want to be out there fighting’.
“I fought like my life depended on it. I think the result today doesn’t matter to me as much as the way that I fought, that I gave it everything. I wanted to be out there. I did everything. Throughout my career, that’s what I’m known for.
“It’s exciting. It’s terrifying. It’s a lot of emotions at the same time. But I’m happy. I’m very happy. Even though I was crying a lot earlier, it really wasn’t sad tears.”
A teenage prodigy, Wozniacki was a grand slam finalist at 19 and world number one a year later. But a slam title remained elusive until this tournament two years ago, when she defeated Simona Halep in an epic final to add what proved to be the final piece of the jigsaw.
“I’ve learnt so much,” said Wozniacki. “I wouldn’t be the person I am today without all those experiences.
“I think the main thing I’ve learned is, no matter where you’re from, no matter what colour of your skin, no matter if you’re tall or short, big or small, it doesn’t matter. If you have a dream and you go for it and work hard, anything is possible.
“I had a dream when I was a kid. I wanted to win a grand slam. I wanted to be number one in the world. People thought that I was crazy being from a small country. But I made it happen. I worked so hard for it every single day. I’m very, very proud of that.”
The tournament had compiled a film of Wozniacki’s friends and rivals paying tribute to her, while she was joined on court by her family, with dad Piotr, her coach throughout her career, hoisting her high in the air.
“I think what happened today was perfect,” she said. “It was a packed stadium. People stood up. There was ‘Sweet Caroline’ through the microphones. People were clapping. I had the Danish flag at my back. I had my family there.
“I don’t think I could have scripted it any better. I think it was the perfect moment.”
Wozniacki has made no secret of her desire to start a family with husband David Lee, the former NBA player, while she will also work to raise awareness of rheumatoid arthritis, which was was diagnosed with in 2018.
She admits tennis will be hard to replace, saying: “I think what I’m going to miss is that competitiveness. Winning a tight match, that adrenaline I think is going to be very hard to duplicate in anything else that I’ll do.
“I’m sure there are going to be times when I wish I was out there playing in grand slam finals or semi-finals. But there will be other moments in my life that I think are going to mean just as much, or maybe more.”