ZHUHAI, China - A fine start for No.6 seed Elise Mertens at the Hengqin Life WTA Elite Trophy Zhuhai was also the end of No.9 seed Maria Sakkari's involvement in the tournament as the Belgian took their round-robin match 6-2, 3-6, 6-1 in one hour and 44 minutes.
Having also lost 6-4, 6-3 to No.4 seed Aryna Sabalenka yesterday, Sakkari finishes with a 0-2 record in the Rose Group and cannot make the semifinals - while Mertens' clash with her doubles partner later this week will decide which of the two move into the last four. To set that up, Mertens was able to post her first win over her Greek opponent since 2014: that year saw her score three wins in four meetings in ITF events, but since moving up to Grand Slam and WTA level Sakkari had won both of their two encounters prior to this week.
"Just went a little bit up-and-down, my level," assessed Mertens afterwards. "I tried too much, I think, in the second set. She played better, so all credit to her. In the third set I just tried to step up my game a little bit, a little bit more aggressive, make some balls, just to try to build a point and then go for it."
Today, though, the Rabat champion's inconsistency was her Achilles' heel. Sakkari had her share of highlights, particularly in striking a series of clean return winners in the initial stages - but after an opening hold of four straight service winners, her shotmaking counted for little on the scoreboard when counterweighted by a slew of groundstroke errors. Moreover, whenever Mertens was in trouble on serve, the US Open quarterfinalist would tighten her game up and regain momentum.
Having captured the first break for 2-1, Mertens managed to extricate herself from a 0-40 deficit in the sixth game - the start of a 12-point winning streak that took her to the brink of the set, taken on her second set point as yet another Sakkari forehand found the net.
— WTA (@WTA) October 23, 2019
When the Doha champion held a break point in the first game of the second set, the match could have easily slipped quickly away from Sakkari, who is contesting just her second tournament following a two-month post-US Open hiatus to recover from a wrist injury. But the 24-year-old was able to turn that game around to hold - sparking a dramatic momentum shift. Aided by greater dynamism and accuracy off the ground in tandem with the reverse from a suddenly error-prone Mertens, Sakkari quickly broke twice to build a 4-0 lead.
A point for 5-0 went begging - and although consecutive double faults from Mertens, taking her tally for the set to four, put the 23-year-old down 5-1 anyway, the seeds of the Mertens recovery had been planted after her midmatch slump. The 2018 Australian Open semifinalist conjured up a series of brilliant backhand winners to get another two games on the scoreboard - and although it was too late to rescue the set, which Sakkari sealed with her third ace, it was this form that Mertens took into the decider.
— WTA (@WTA) October 23, 2019
Moving smoothly around the court and striking her backhand with authority, Mertens emerged from a three-break sequence with a 3-1 lead as a tempestuous Sakkari's game began to oscillate wildly again.
From there, Mertens took control to speed to the finishing line, rattling off 16 out of the final 21 points of the match as Sakkari went awry on everything from overheads to putaways. The home stretch included Mertens' first two aces of the match and some spectacular defensive points in the final game to capture a victory that bolsters the World No.18's hopes of getting out of the Zhuhai group stages on her second appearance here.