Wozniacki, Halep know No. 1 challenge is stiff competition at Indian Wells

Caroline Wozniacki joked that she was experiencing separation anxiety because she was half a world away from Daphne, the affectionate nickname of the trophy annually awarded to the Australian Open women’s champion. But the Daphne Akhurst Memorial Cup, as it’s formally known, is in the loving care of Wozniacki’s mother, leaving Wozniacki free to concentrate on giving Daphne some company in her trophy case.

“Life is good. Life has been very busy, but good,” she said. “Right now, everything is back to where it used to be.”

Not quite. It will never be the same, and in a good way.

Before she defeated Simona Halep in a splendidly intense three-set final in Melbourne in January, Wozniacki was one of seven women who had held the No. 1 world ranking without having won a Grand Slam title. She felt profound relief in knowing she won’t have to face those will-you-ever-win-a-big-one queries again.

“For so many years I’ve gotten that question, being No. 1 and not having won a Grand Slam, it’s just nice that I actually got that,” she said during a news conference Wednesday. “It was basically the only thing lacking on my resume, so it’s nice to finally have that. And I’m just enjoying myself.”

Romanian Halep, a valiant loser in the two-hour, 50-minute match, still carries an asterisk next to her name and a Grand Slam dream in her heart. Asked how long it had taken her to recover from that wrenching loss in Melbourne in her third Grand Slam final, Halep was poignantly honest.

“How many weeks are since then?”she said. “Now I’m recovered but it’s tough.”

Wozniacki, the first Dane to win a Grand Slam, and Halep have traded the No. 1 world ranking this year. Halep held it to start 2018, Wozniacki claimed it for the first time in six years after her Australian Open triumph, and Halep regained it before the BNP Paribas Open, which began Wednesday at the Indian Wells Tennis Garden. Wozniacki could be on top again if she wins here.

“I was extremely happy to get back to No. 1. That was a huge goal for me,” Wozniacki said. “It was less of a goal for me to stay there more because after winning Australia, that was such a big thing for me and reaching that spot again, I feel like if I play well for the rest of the year I have a chance to finish No 1.”

The women’s field is especially unpredictable this year because of two players who are unseeded but are hardly unknown.

Serena Williams, a 23-time Grand Slam champion, and Victoria Azarenka, a two-time Slam winner, will end long absences and return to competition Thursday. Williams, who will face Zarina Diyas of Kazakhstan, hasn’t played a tournament since she won the 2017 Australian Open during the early stages of pregnancy. She gave birth to her daughter, Alexis Ohanian, Jr., last Sept. 1 and has played a few exhibitions since. Azarenka, who will face Heather Watson of Great Britain, has been involved in a dispute over custody of her son and hasn’t competed since Wimbledon last year.

Williams’ husband, Alexis Ohanian, Sr., installed four billboards alongside I-10 near Palm Springs declaring her “Greatest Momma of all time,” but her match fitness and overall readiness are a mystery. Other players are eager to see for themselves.

“I’m curious because it’s something really special to have a kid and then to come back to play,” Halep said. “It’s not in my mind to do that but I just want to see the girls being so strong to come back and play tennis again.”

Venus Williams, the No. 8 seed here, offered a few clues about younger sister Serena’s status.

“She has the desire and she’s feeling healthy and as long as that happens, she’s okay,” Venus Williams said. “When our days align, then we’ll hit balls. It doesn’t always happen but when it does, it’s a lot of fun.”

She said motherhood has changed Serena.

“She does everything for the baby. Every single thing,” Venus said. “I hope I can do that if I ever get there. I don’t know what’s going to happen to me. But other than that I think she’s stayed very much the same.”

Garbine Muguruza of Spain, the No. 3 seed, said she welcomes the return of Williams and Azarenka.

“They’re going to make the draw a little bit more interesting. It’s good,” Muguruza said.

Serena Williams was No. 1 from Feb. 12, 2013 through Sept. 11, 2016, but Angelique Kerber, Serena Williams, Karolina Pliskova, Muguruza, Halep, and Wozniacki have all occupied the top spot since. Muguruza believes that increased depth will lead to frequent changes atop the rankings this year.

“I don’t know before, but it wasn’t like this,” she said. “There was always Serena or a few other players winning all the tournaments after other players, but right now I feel like you come to a tournament you have no idea who’s going to win. … I feel between 20, 30, 40, everybody can give a big surprise. Everybody can just make the draw and win the tournament, so you are always in kind of danger.”

helene.elliott@latimes.com

Follow Helene Elliott on Twitter @helenenothelen

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