HOBART, Tasmania - No.2 seed Elise Mertens is back into the Hobart International final for the second year in a row after taking down fellow former champion Heather Watson, 6-4, 1-6, 6-2.
The Hobart International has never seen a repeat champion; both 2017 winner Mertens and 2015 champion Watson were looking to become the first in 25 years, as well as lift the brand new Angie Cunningham Trophy.
“She made the same run [from qualifying] as I did last year, but I’m happy to win today,” Mertens said in her on-court interview. “I gave it all today, and I’m still playing doubles later!”
Just one break of serve decided the tight opening set; qualifier Watson wasn’t able to create any chances against the rock-solid Mertens serve. Despite pushing the Belgian to deuce eight times in the set, Watson wasn’t able to break through as Mertens stayed collected in the big points, getting the lead at 3-2 and holding firm to take the set.
Watson regrouped admirable in the second set, an inch-perfect lob catching Mertens on the back foot creating her first break chance of the match for a 3-1 lead. She didn’t hesitate to take it, and the fired up Brit barraged Watson with winners to reel off five games in a row. With a daring dropshot, Watson became the first player to take a set off the Belgian in her two-year run in Hobart.
The Brit had the opportunity to open the third set with an early break, but Mertens took advantage of Watson’s misfiring forehand to bat away the break point. She picked up right where she left off in the first set, blasting winners off both wings as Watson’s frustrations grew along with her unforced error count. Mertens won five of the last six games to book her spot into the Hobart final.
“I tried to play a bit more aggressive in the third set and make her run a little bit more,” Mertens explained in her on-court interview. “She was dictating me in the second set, all credits to her. She played an amazing match.”
Since the tournament’s inception in 1994 there’s never been a two-time champion, the longest active streak in the WTA. But with her victory Mertens has added her name to the other six two-time finalists: Mana Endo (winner in 1994, runner-up in 1996); Dominique Van Roost (winner in 1997, runner-up in 1998); Chanda Rubin (winner in 1999, runner-up in 2000); Rita Grande (runner-up in 1999, winner in 2001); Amy Frazier (runner-up in 2003, winner in 2004); and Mona Barthel (winner in 2012, runner-up in 2013).
Standing between Mertens and Hobart history will be the ascendant Mihaela Buzarnescu. In the second semifinal of the day, the unseeded Romanian cruised past No.5 seed Lesia Tsurenko 6-2, 6-2 in one hour and 23 minutes, breaking her opponent five times en route to sealing her maiden WTA final - in just her second career semifinal. Like Mertens, Buzarnescu is yet to drop a set in Hobart this week.
This time last year, Buzarnescu was ranked No.541. In October, the 29-year-old became the oldest Top 100 debutante since 33-year-old Tzipora Obziler cracked that milestone in February 2007, and after this week she's assured of breaking the Top 50, having successfully transitioned her phenomenal ITF circuit form of 2017 to the WTA Tour.