PRAGUE, Czech Republic – No.3 seed Elise Mertens was pushed all the way by wildcard Eugenie Bouchard before taking a 6-4, 1-6, 6-4 victory in the quarterfinals of the Prague Open.
Although the Belgian had claimed both of the pair’s previous two meetings without the loss of a set, this proved to be a highly competitive encounter that was decided by fine margins as both players impressed.
Mertens took a high-quality opening set but WTA World No.330 Bouchard hit back emphatically in the second – the first set she had ever taken against the WTA World No.23. However, the Belgian successfully dug deep to secure the victory in two hours 18 minutes it set up a semifinal meeting with Kristyna Pliskova, who had earlier progressed as Ana Bogdan was forced to retire in the first set of their encounter.
“She hit the ball pretty well today, she made me run a lot. Her serve is tough to return. All credit to her for making me have a tough match. In the end, it was a mental game,” Mertens said of her opponent, who hit 33 winners to 30 unforced errors throughout, before reflecting on the challenge to come.
“I think the difference was physical, mental, maybe more mentally at the end. The games were pretty close, The first set was pretty close, in the second set she played really well, made fewer mistakes, became more aggressive, but I think at the end, it was just that one break. Just one service game made the difference.
After an easy hold from each player to begin the match, neither would find it comfortable to win their service games in the remainder of the set. Although it was Mertens who fashioned the first break point, it was Bouchard who took the initiative as she won the third game, although this was short lived as her opponent immediately fought back.
Both players were hitting a fine ratio of winners to unforced errors, and while it was Bouchard who was the more aggressive, she ultimately succumbed in the 10th game of the set as she fired long trying to save set point.
Bouchard, though, was unwavering after that important by near miss. She continued to be proactive in the second set and benefitted as her opponent’s accuracy briefly let her down. Two break points were fashioned in the very first game, and while Mertens saved the first of those with a fine serve down the ‘T’ that Bouchard could only push into the tramlines on the stretch, it was only a temporary reprieve.
Pressure was immediately applied to the former Roland Garros semifinalist thereafter. Mertens won an entertaining rally with a fine volley then struck a crisp passing shot to fashion a break point, but this was superbly saved by the Canadian, who then won two exchanges of dropshots to consolidate her advantage.
Having saved herself in a moment of crisis, Bouchard kicked on impressively, breaking twice more as she cruised to level in 31 minutes for the loss of just a single game.
Her momentum was halted at the beginning of the deciding set the players exchanged two comfortable holds each before a brief lapse from the former WTA World No.5 in the fifth game. Three points were allowed to escape without great difficulty and though Bouchard clawed them back impressively, a fourth break point broke her resistance.
Two unreturnable serves at the beginning of the next game were the foundation for Mertens to consolidate her advantage and there would be no scares in the closing stages.
Victory means that Mertens, a quarterfinalist in Hobart and Shenzhen, is into her first semifinal of 2020 and has improved her record to 14-6 for the year.
“Of course, after five matches, you try to enjoy the game, try to get the good results and try to get those matches in again. After five months, it’s a little different, there’s a little bit of nervousness maybe, but I managed it well and I’m happy in the semifinal,” she said while she will take nothing for granted against Pliskova, another player she approaches holding a 2-0 winning record.
“I’ve beaten her in the past but there’s been so many months in between. She’s a great player, I’m excited for it.”