LUGANO, Switzerland - Australian Open semifinalist Elise Mertens overcame immense odds to capture her first clay court title on Sunday, sweeping the Samsung Open presented by cornèr in both singles and doubles with fellow Belgian Kirsten Flipkens. After a week of stormy weather, the forgiving weekend forecast was as surprising to the No.2 seed as anything else.
"At the beginning of the week it didn't look that good," she told me after knocking out Aryna Sabalenka - first in singles, then in doubles with Vera Lapko - in straight sets. "After the first round it started raining again and it was interrupted when we played our second match on Thursday.
"But I think the tournament managed well to put all the matches on court and I'm glad that we could finish on Sunday."
The title brings Mertens up to a new career-high ranking of World No.17, reversing a tough run of results following her Melbourne breakthrough and setting her in good stead for next week's Fed Cup World Group Play-Off against Italy.
Check out the full Champions Interview with the 22-year-old, where she reveals how she adapts her game to clay, her committment to success in singles and doubles, and how the impacted schedule brought out her best tennis.
What was most surprising to you: that you were able to win both singles and doubles here in Lugano, or that the tournament was able to finish on time after all of the rain delays?
Mertens: Both titles came as a surprise for me, but you come to a tournament and you try to win it. I had a couple of tough matches, especially the second third and fourth matches, it could go either way but I'm happy that I pulled through.
Was there any point with the hectic schedule, having to play multiple matches each day, that you considered focusing just on singles?
Mertens: When I play singles and doubles, I just go for both. I never say, 'Oh, I'll just go for the singles and we'll see in the doubles.' I'm not really that type of person. I try to do both and do well in both. I think Aryna had two matches too, a couple of long ones, but I think we both managed well and not to think too much about the matches or about the matches that we still had to play or the rain that still had to come.
How did you spend the many rain delays?
Mertens: Practice wasn't really an option because of all the rain. If you keep winning then you have to play more matches, so you just wanted to rest a little bit and be prepared for the long days. I didn't practice indoors. The first time on clay this year, so I'm really happy that it went well. Maybe [not practicing] it kept the energy up, and winning the title with Kirsten gives us a lot of confidence for Fed Cup.
You talked about not feeling confident on clay until last spring, when you won some impressive matches in Fed Cup, and then you went on to make a final in Istanbul. How differently do you feel on clay now, as compared to a year ago?
Mertens: On clay you have to work hard every point, especially at this level. If you feel well and can slide a little bit, you can win if you play aggressively, but not too aggressively sometimes, because the ball is going to come back back a bit more. It's important to feel confident, I think serve is a big point too, return, and I think all those points that you keep working on in practice.
After strong results in Australia, and now another title - this time on clay - how do you assess your goals, or how you see yourself against the rest of the field?
Mertens: I don't really have expectations, I see it week by week. If my level is there and I'm mentally and physically ready to play, then I think some great things can happen. Of course you still have to work hard every day and bring the best out of yourself.
Next week, you'll head to Fed Cup. How soon will you go, or will you stay a few more days in Lugano?
Mertens: I play Fed Cup in Italy - we go tomorrow. Kirsten, Alison [Van Uytvanck] and I are going tomorrow - we're going by car, it's only three hours, I think, so it's pretty close by. I'm really glad that I can play for my county, happy that I can play as a team once in a while. I think tomorrow I'll be tired, for now I'm still okay but I think all the emotions are still there.
Looking back, what was your favorite moment from this week?
Mertens: I think yesterday, because it was a really long day - I had three matches and I'm really happy that I pulled through that day even though it didn't really look all that well sometimes, just to stay mentally tough and fight.