MELBOURNE—With control, power, depth and adroit forward movement, Elise Mertens dispatched fourth-seeded Elina Svitolina, 6-4, 6-0, in a brisk 73 minutes in the quarterfinals of the Australian Open. Mertens hit 26 winners, nearly double Svitolina’s count of 14. Mertens was also a sparkling 15 of 20 at net.
It’s been a magic carpet ride for the 22-year-old Belgian. It was one thing to be in the main draw of the Australian Open for the first time. It was another to fight back in the second round from 5-0 and eight set points down to beat Aussie Daria Gavrilova. Then came wins over street-smart Alize Cornet and sharp-striking Petra Martic.
But Svitolina, at least in theory, represented a challenge of a whole other level. The 23-year-old Ukrainian had started ’18 with a title run in Brisbane, upping her WTA singles finals record to a gaudy 10-2. There was even a possibility of Svitolina becoming No. 1 in the world at the end of this tournament.
Theories and possibilities, though, fade in the wake of realities. In Svitolina’s case, a right hip injury had mildly begun to impact her in the finals of Brisbane. Here in Melbourne, she’d attempted to blunt it with pain-killers, but found versus Mertens that even that wasn’t enough.
“Today was very tough for me physically,” said Svitolina. “I was not ready to produce a good level of tennis. You know, she's a great player, so, you know, she has a good level, so, you know, I couldn't match it, because, you know, physically it was very tough for me.”
Mertens took command tidily, first breaking Svitolina at 1-1 in the first set. Serving at 3-2, 30-love, Mertens showed silky-smooth skill on the next two points—a crisp backhand winner and then, to close out the game, a laced down-the-line backhand that set up a sharp forehand volley. Still, when Mertens earned a double-break for 5-2, Svitolina fought back hard to win the next two games.
Mertens served at 5-4. When she missed an easy backhand at 15-all, the moment of doubt at last entered the picture. But Mertens responded with a 107 m.p.h. ace wide and soon closed out the set in 41 minutes.
“I don't really look at my opponent,” said Mertens. “So try to stay in my bubble.”
Svitolina was unable to poke a hole. Mertens broke to start the second. With Svitolina trying to maintain a toehold, serving at 0-2, 40-30, Mertens carved a sublime, sliced backhand crosscourt that landed just inside the service box. A discouraged Svitolina subsequently cooked a backhand long and netted a forehand. Again up two breaks, Mertens ran out the match.
“I was in the zone today,” said Mertens.
A Belgian plotline also ran through this match. Over the last three years, Mertens has trained at the Kim Clijsters Academy. As the story goes, Mertens’ first tennis memory was of watching Clijsters in action. Like Clijsters, Mertens commanded the court with a series of flat drives, propelled by excellent footwork and the occasional sprinkle of imagination. Mertens’ game also bears a resemblance to another sleek and intermittently versatile player, Daniela Hantuchova (a semifinalist here ten years ago).
But of course, Clijsters is an extremely valuable mentor. “She has been here before,” said Mertens. “She has the experience, so it's always nice to talk to her. And also, for the emotions, to see what she has to tell me or can, yeah, communicate.”
Svitolina’s Belgian connection was that she’d spent the bulk of 2016 under the tutelage of Justine Henin. Oddly enough—or maybe not, or maybe due to the injury—watching Svitolina play today, not a single fingerprint from Henin could be detected. While it’s presumptuous to think a grinding baseliner with a two-handed backhand will repurpose her game to play like an all-courter with a one-hander, there was little Svitolina did other than run, react and occasionally try to hit harder If I had a dollar for every time I heard a tennis player say their game plan was to “play my game,” as Svitolina did after the match, I could at least make a car payment.
The Aussie devotee in me wishes to criticize Svitolina for even mentioning her injury. But those old-school legends who once commanded the sport did not occupy our contemporary data stream of tweets, posts, press conferences. And to her credit, Svitolina graciously praised Mertens for her performance.
And yet, might Svitolina currently be the WTA equivalent of Alexander Zverev? Boosted by ample firepower, each won five singles titles last year and made their way into their tours' Top 5. Each is also clearly in the tennis for the long term and willing to put in the sober introspection and hard work required for major success. But, alas, each of these two young prospects has yet to make a significant mark at a Grand Slam event. One hopes that changes.
Earlier this month, Mertens won the title in Hobart for the second year in a row. Australia’s low-key flavor is a good for her personality.
“I’m kind of a quiet girl,” said Mertens. “I'm not really in the spotlight, I guess. Just trying to be normal. I think I'm just normal.”
Perhaps. But it’s far from normal to reach the semis of a major the first time you play it. Clijsters, aided by her one-time romance with Lleyton Hewitt, propelled also by her classy persona, was dubbed “Aussie Kim.” The way Mertens has lit up this country, she might well soon become, “Aussie Elise.”
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