DOHA, Qatar - If Elise Mertens felt any pressure as the Qatar Total Open defending champion, the No.16 seed didn't show it in her first-round match as she needed just 64 minutes to dispatch Wang Qiang 6-1, 6-2 - the second time in two weeks that she had conceded only three games to the Chinese player, whom she had also defeated 6-3, 6-0 in the first round of Dubai.
These back-to-back dominant scorelines are particularly impressive considering that just nine months ago, Mertens had been on the wrong end of a 0-3 head-to-head deficit against Wang before beginning to reverse it with a marathon 6-2, 6-7(9), 6-4 win in the third round of Wimbledon. Afterwards, the Belgian ascribed her recent wins to dealing with the gusty conditions better: "Like last week, I didn't expect it to be a match like that," she said. "I think she didn't really like the wind that much. I tried to adapt to the wind and you can't always play full force when the wind is coming, it can change directions."
Adaptability to her circumstances has been a key both to Mertens' rise through the rankings and her consolidation over the last two seasons of her Top 30 position - a status highlighted in 2019 by capturing her first Premier title in Doha a year ago. The 24-year-old is no stranger to the art of the title defence, having won back-to-back Hobart titles in 2017 and 2018, and she says that the key is not to get wrapped up in it.
"It's important to not focus on the win you had last year," the World No.22 told reporters after her win over Wang. "Of course a good feeling you want to stay with. Yeah, of course, the points and the pressure, you really have to deal with that, but I think I'm doing it pretty good, pretty well. I know I managed to get a back-to-back title in Hobart. Of course this is still a different level, but, yeah, don't put focus too much on the points, I think, and what you have to defend."
Mertens, who completed a full set of Grand Slam second-week showings at Wimbledon last year, says that she is currently trying to balance her focus on the majors with keeping her ranking up. "Of course the Grand Slams are the most important tournaments and you want to do really well there," she stated. "I think fourth round at the Aussie Open was a good start for me, definitely. That's kind of difficult because... I'm only playing these bigger tournaments from now on. I'm not in the Top 20 at the moment, so I would like to be back in the Top 20. This week... I don't know if I'm going to be a champion, but I'll go as far as I can go. If my level is going to be there, I can make some good results."
The US Open quarterfinalist has, of course, been keeping a keen eye on the comeback of her illustrious compatriot, Kim Clijsters - with whom she has practised several times already. "I think as the match went further and further she was really adapting really well and really fast," Mertens observed of the former World No.1's first-round loss in Dubai to Garbiñe Muguruza. "I didn't really expect her to be like this in the second set already, but she came back from 3-0... she's a great fighter and she hasn't lost that spirit yet."
Clijsters isn't the only mother taking her first steps back on to the WTA Tour in the Middle East this year. Elsewhere on the first day of main draw play in Doha, former World No.25 and three-time Grand Slam quarterfinalist Yaroslava Shvedova competed in her first match since Roland Garros 2017, falling 6-3, 6-2 to qualifier Laura Siegemund. The Kazakh's hiatus from the sport had initially been due to injury - Shvedova had ankle surgery in 2017 - but in October 2018 she also gave birth to twins named Mirka and Stan.
Meanwhile, qualifier Bernarda Pera scored her second victory in as many meetings with former World No.4 Caroline Garcia, winning 6-3, 6-1; and 18-year-old Amanda Anisimova got back to winning ways, snapping a three-match losing streak to defeat Shenzhen champion Ekaterina Alexandrova 6-3, 7-6(4). Svetlana Kuznetsova, runner-up here in 2004 and 2007, also tasted first-round success, brushing past wildcard Cagla Buyukakcay 6-2, 6-2 in one hour and 21 minutes, while Veronika Kudermetova came through a wildly fluctuating three-setter over Kristina Mladenovic 7-6(6), 0-6, 6-3 - having come back to take the first set from 1-5 down, saving two set points en route.