MELBOURNE, Australia -- Last year, Elise Mertens was unable to participate in the Australian Open qualifying due to a scheduling conflict. This year, in her first ever appearance in the Melbourne main draw, she finds herself in her maiden Grand Slam quarterfinal.
The Belgian No.1 got past Petra Martic of Croatia, 7-6(5), 7-5, in a tightly-contested, two-hour fourth-round battle on Margaret Court Arena on Sunday. Mertens has extended her winning streak to eight matches, after defending her title at the Hobart International last week.
"It’s hard to describe, it’s hard to believe," Mertens told the press afterwards. "Of course you work hard every week to be here, to do well at a Grand Slam. So I’m really happy that I’m in the quarterfinals for the first time."
"It was a really close match," she continued. "We had to fight hard, both of the players, actually, so it was tight until the end."
It is a stunning turnaround from the events of last year, where Mertens was still involved in the Hobart International and could not make it to the qualifying event in Melbourne. But Mertens ended up winning that event for her first WTA title, and had a stellar 2017 from that point forward, ending the season in the Top 40.
In the quarterfinals, World No.37 Mertens will face the winner of the night match between No.4 seed Elina Svitolina of Ukraine and Czech qualifier Denisa Allertova.
"I think all of this is a bonus," said Mertens. "Of course, you want to win a Grand Slam, but quarterfinals isn’t bad! Of course, I want to still do better, still have energy, so I’m trying to focus on my next match."
In the initial stages of the match, it appeared that Mertens would roll to a dominant win. The Belgian cracked stunning winners off of both sides to break Martic for a 2-0 lead, and jumped to a 4-0 lead after Martic hit a poor drop shot down break point to cede her service once again.
But Martic began to find the game that brought her to the fourth round at three of the last four Grand Slam events, peppering her groundstrokes with wily slice backhands. Mertens faced a break point while serving at 4-0, and she hit a double fault, which started a four-game skid for the increasingly frustrated Belgian.
Mertens finally got back on the board by holding at love for 5-4, although Martic countered for 5-5 with an easy service game of her own, hitting two aces. Two games later, Martic barely held for 6-6, as Mertens reached set point after a lob by the Croat was just long, but the players pulled through into the tiebreak.
The difference between the competitors in the breaker was as razor-thin as it had been in the set proper. Martic fell behind first, but she pulled back to 2-3 by slicing backhands to Mertens until she found the opportunity to come in and hit a forehand winner.
But Mertens held the lead throughout, hitting an ace for 5-3, and garnering three more chances to close out the set at 6-3. Martic repelled two of those opportunities, but on the third, the Croat bailed out of a long rally with an ill-fated drop shot, which Mertens easily chased down to put away a forehand winner, clinching the opening set.
In the second set, Martic was again the first to fall behind, as she was broken at love to give Mertens a 3-2 lead. The Croat was struggling with the left side of her body at this point, and went off court for a roughly ten-minute medical time-out.
The treatment seemed to work, as Martic held for 4-3, and then broke Mertens for 4-4. Any momentum Martic may have gathered from that break of service was lost in the very next game, though, as too many errors from the forehand side gave Mertens the 5-4 lead and a chance to serve for the match.
Mertens struggled with the pressure, and had to fend off two break points before finally reaching her first match point. However, another superb slice backhand from Martic drew an error from the Belgian, and after a long game, Martic knotted the set at 5-5 when a Mertens backhand went long.
But, in the next game, a beautiful backhand crosscourt winner from Mertens gave her another chance to go up a break in the second set, and once another Martic forehand misfired long, the Belgian took a 6-5 lead. Mertens stayed calm this time, and held at love in the next game, closing out the match with another wonderful backhand crosscourt winner.
Mertens finished the match with nine aces, to Martic's seven, and those paid dividends in her numerous tense service games. The two players had an identical amount of winners in the match -- 34 -- but Martic put herself behind by losing the first set, and she will rue the 21 unforced errors in the opener which cost her there.