HOBART, Australia -- Defending champion Elise Mertens did something that no one else in the 25-year history of the Hobart International had ever done -- she won the singles title for a second time.
The No.2 seed from Belgium dispatched first-time WTA finalist Mihaela Buzarnescu of Romania, 6-1, 4-6, 6-3, on Saturday to capture her second consecutive championship in Hobart. Not only had no one ever defended their title since the tournament's inception in 1994, but no champion had ever been able to hoist the trophy again.
"My first title last year, and I think to repeat for a second title, I think I’m most proud of that for the consistency, and to prove that I can win again," Mertens told the press after play ended for the day.
The two-and-a-half-hour match took over seven hours to complete from first ball to last due to persistent rain delays, but Mertens, who was a qualifier when she won her first singles title last year, overcame a pushed-back start time and three suspensions of play to go back-to-back in Tasmania.
Even after that long encounter, Mertens still found the energy to come back out and win the doubles championship as well, partnering Demi Schuurs of the Netherlands to a 6-2, 6-2 victory over Ukrainian Lyudmyla Kichenok and Japan's Makoto Ninomiya.
"It’s been a very very good day, but also a very very long day," Mertens exclaimed after the doubles championship. "But it was an amazing day for me. Despite all the waiting, I don’t mind at all anymore."
The match started over an hour late due to the precipitation, and the first three games of the match went against serve, as both players were tentative on the court. But Mertens claimed what would turn out to be a pivotal hold for 3-1 after hitting some tremendous winners off of both wings.
One point later, a fine mist enveloped the court, and the players were testing the lines for slickness, eventually deeming it unsafe to continue. Shortly thereafter, the skies opened up, and play was suspended for nearly two hours.
Any fears Mertens may have had about losing momentum after the rain delay were quickly dispelled, when she broke Buzarnescu’s serve handily to take a 4-1 lead. The Belgian’s forehand started to find its range, and she used it to pass Buzarnescu when the Romanian made her occasional forays to the net.
Buzarnescu tried to get another game on the board before the second set, but to no avail. After a double fault while serving at 5-1, Buzarnescu dropped a volley into the net, giving the Belgian two set points. Buzarnescu saved one with a solid overhead, but a forehand error long provided Mertens a one-set lead.
Both players had seven winners in the opening set, but Mertens kept her unforced error count very low, with only six, while Buzarnescu had a whopping 17 miscues, many coming after the first suspension of play.
"You have to keep your mind clear," Mertens said of the rain delays. "It’s very important to not get frustrated or anything. I think it’s just mentally to be prepared for anything."
Mertens started the second set by serving three aces to hold for 1-0. Buzarnescu leveled the set at 1-1 with an ace of her own, and saved a break point in her next service game at 2-1 with a sterling crosscourt backhand winner. But, after reaching game point, Buzarnescu’s improvement was thwarted by another rain delay.
After a second suspension of play which took nearly two hours, Buzarnescu’s crafty yet powerful game came into its own. The Romanian lefty held serve four consecutive times to reach 4-4, after being unable to hold once in the opening set.
Buzarnescu then took command of the set. She won a protracted game to break for a 5-4 lead after a lengthy, hard-hitting rally on break point was cracked open by a backhand which landed square on the baseline, which Mertens returned long with an errant backhand of her own.
The Romanian swiftly held serve in the next game to level the match at one set all. Buzarnescu greatly improved her ratio of winners to unforced errors from the first set to the second, and served well enough to only face one break point in the whole set, which she saved.
But Mertens used her championship experience in Hobart to jump to a quick advantage in the deciding set. The turning point was on the Buzarnescu serve down 1-2, when the Romanian saved two break points and clawed her way to game point, before strong returning by Mertens brought her to a third break opportunity. On that point, Buzarnescu hit a backhand volley into the net, giving Mertens the 3-1 lead.
That would prove to be the only break of the set. Buzarnescu scraped her way out of trouble in her next service game, maneuvering her way out of three break points against her en route to a hold for 4-2. Buzarnescu repelled two more break points, which doubled as match points, in her following service game down 2-5 -- and then a third rain delay started, this time lasting slightly more than an hour.
Mertens had another match point on the Buzarnescu serve directly after the rain delay, but the Romanian survived some grueling rallies to hold once more and force Mertens to serve out the match. The Belgian was up to the challenge, and closed out the match at 6-3 in the third after Buzarnescu sent a final service return into the net.
Thus, Mertens heads to the first Grand Slam of the year on a high note, where she will face a qualifier or lucky loser in the first round. "I’m really happy that I came back to Hobart, this is where it all begins," she said. "This year too, I had a great start from Hopman [Cup] to here. It gives me a lot of confidence to go to Melbourne."
Buzarnescu can be pleased about her week as well, where she did not drop a set until the final. The Romanian is projected to make her Top 50 debut next week. She has a difficult draw against World No.2 Caroline Wozniacki at the Australian Open -- Buzarnescu has had to face Wozniacki in the first round at both of her Grand Slam appearances, after last year's US Open.