OSTRAVA, Czech Republic - For the second time in as many rounds at the J&T Banka Ostrava Open, No.4 seed Victoria Azarenka needed to find her very best tennis to come from behind, overhauling No.7 seed Elise Mertens 6-4, 6-1 in one hour and 30 minutes to reach the semifinals.
The pair had squared off for the first time a month ago in the US Open quarterfinals - a clash that had promised much based in their incoming form, but had turned out to be surprisingly one-sided as Azarenka ran out a 6-1, 6-0 winner. Today, though the Belarusian would ultimately win 10 of the last 12 games, the first set in particular was a feast of high-quality all-court exchanges that saw both players stretched to the limit.
"I actually turned to my coaches and I was like - this is a great level of tennis, I'm really enjoying it," recalled Azarenka of the first set. "I felt like every other point was a winner. There wasn't loose mistakes - I felt the quality was incredibly high. There was a lot of variety, a lot of long rallies - so I was really enjoying that part. I feel in the second set, it was 2-1, 40-0 on her serve - it could have been 2-2 and who knows what could have happened? But that was an important game for me to take the lead and put my foot on the gas pedal."
Indeed, Mertens started today as if intent on exorcising the memory of the New York rout. An irresistible blend of shotmaking with her hard, flat groundstrokes - including a pair of superb forehands to break Azarenka in the opening game - athletic defence and her trademark sharp shot selection - would put her in the driver's seat for much of the set.
Tallying 28 winners to Azarenka's 21 over the course of the day, Mertens' commitment to being the more aggressive player was evident - and paid off in a passage of play characterized by breathtaking line-to-line exchanges as both players would be forced to use every inch of the court to gain the upper hand. Neither seemed ready to give ground: Azarenka, threatening the comeback, stretched Mertens to three deuces in the sixth game, only for the Belgian to find a pair of glorious winners from each wing to move up 4-2.
Azarenka's grit and determination have been a hallmark of her career, particularly during her 2020 renaissance - and on court, this is manifest in the way she is able to gradually grind out comebacks in a continual, relentless quest for the turning point. The 31-year-old had not found a way through that tussle, but continued to plug away to immediately capture a multi-deuce hold of her own, saving a point to go down a double break with a superb stab volley and sealing the game with a forehand winner down the line.
That, it turned out, was the momentum shift the former World No.1 had been seeking. Refusing to give ground on the baseline, Azarenka forced Mertens to go for lower-percentage strikes in order to maintain her offensive strategy - and was rewarded by the 24-year-old's error count ticking up just slightly too much in the final two games of the set. Serving at 4-5, 30-30, Mertens made a crucial misjudgment, stopping in her tracks after expecting her serve to be called out. It turned out to be in - and with a set point handed to her, Azarenka made no mistake, sealing the opening frame as Mertens netted a backhand.
"I feel she adjusted her game a bit from New York, so it took me a bit of time to adapt to that," said Azarenka afterwards about Mertens' fast start. "Today I didn't expect the same result, but I did feel like I was really in control after I adjusted my game - I felt I made it very difficult for her to earn points."
Her adjustment, she said, was in terms of both changing her gameplan on the fly and in mental resilience. "A bit of both. When you talk about changing your game, they're minor changes - being a bit more aggressive, stepping up a bit closer to the baseline, putting a bit more variety - not a big, dramatic change. Sometimes it's unnoticeable but it does maybe change the dynamic of the rallies, the pace, the spin. It was more about execution that was a bit more present - and definitely the fighting spirit, that's what jumpstarts the whole adjustment of the game."
Mertens, playing a Tour-leading seventh quarterfinal of the season, emerged for the second set in similarly irresistible form as she had started the match, striking five winners to just one unforced error in the opening game as she probed for the immediate break. But in a testament to Azarenka's sharpness on big points, it was the former World No.1 who came out on top of the game, and who continued to excel whenever she had an opportunity to tighten her grasp of the momentum.
With the set still relatively equally poised in the fourth game, Azarenka snatched a hold from Mertens' grasp from 40-0 down thanks to a blitz of winners, and two games later captured the double break for 5-1 as the World No.21 suffered an untimely spate of errors and a double fault.
There would be no such worries for Azarenka, who managed to raise her first serve percentage from an already-high 76% in the first set to 80% in the second, while reducing her already-low unforced error count from six to five. Mertens still had a pair of bold highlights-reel winners left in the tank as she fought to stay alive in the final game, but Azarenka was in no mood for wobbling. Having saved a break-back point, the US Open finalist booked a semifinal date against Maria Sakkari on her first match point as Mertens sent a backhand into the net.