Elise Mertens captured the biggest title of her career in some style at the Qatar Total Open on Saturday, when the unseeded Belgian rallied from a set and a break down to defeat top seed Simona Halep, 3-6 6-4 6-3, to win her first-ever WTA Premier-level crown, and the fifth title of her career.
I was really happy the way I played this week, actually. I'm happy about the process that I made, starting out playing less well and then getting better every match. Kiki Bertens
It all looked to be going the way of the Romanian when she took the first set after trading breaks of serve twice over the first six games, winning 18 consecutive points across five games from 3-3 in the opening set.
One-way traffic is dangerous in tennis, though, and after winning four games to love and the first two points in Mertens’ first service game of the second set, Halep went up a break and with a 3-0, visibly relaxed.
Mertens knew she had to step her game up or go home, and she hit back immediately to get the match back on serve.
The Belgian has never taken a set off Halep and it is a measure of her determination that she did not throw in the towel but, instead, dug deep.
Learning from her mistakes, she started playing moreaggressively and it wasn’t long that her confidence soared as she struck back to grab the set off a slightly bemused Halep at 6-4.
Both had saved break points, with Mertens fending off two to hold for 3-3 and the Belgian finally broke through by winning the Halep serve to love in the 9th game en route to sealing her first set in six played against the Romanian.
As the match went on there were medical timeouts with Mertens having back issues and then Halep getting her foot wrapped by the trainer, but these did little to dent the quality of the tennis.
The deciding set was promising for both, but Halep’s foot or possibly tiredness robbed the Romanian of her fluidmovement and as the rallies went deep, she gradually fell away.
After breaking to begin the final set and holding on in a titanic early game to lead 2-0, Mertens held off a fight back from the top seed, who won the next two games to level the decider at 3-all.
Mertens moving up a break and her self-assurance riding high, as built up a steady edge by winning four of the final five games, finally taking a 5-4 lead as she clenched her fist in accomplishment.
She had reduced her unforced error count and kept the pressure on Halep to ride out the match for the title.
The unseeded Mertenswas speechlessin her joy, giving a broad grin and saying: “This week everybody worked hard but it’s nice to get the trophy.”
It was the second time Halep played Doha and she was glad to have gone deep into the final, having had to withdraw last year after her quarter-final win over CiCi Bellis.
“I wish you the best, you are a great player,” she said to Mertens on court on Saturday.
Later Halep confirmed she will not be working with coach Thierry Van Cleemput after all.
The partnership was announced before she took off to Ostrava in the Czech Republic where Halep helped Romania earn its first-ever spot in the Fed Cup semi-finals.
The two worked together for the first time theQatar Total Openwhere Halep told WTA Insider: “So we tried for one week and it’s finished,. We decided to stop because we are not a good fit together. He’s a good person, a very nice person, but on court the chemistry is not there.
“We couldn’t fit each other tennis-wise. Personally, he is a very nice person. We are friends.”
The former No 1 rises back to No 2 on Monday as she starts her Dubai campaign.
“I can say that I am not looking [for a coach] at the moment,” Halep said. “I have my team, I have my hitting partner with me. I feel good like this and I will take my time.
“I know I said that when I started the year and then I changed my mind because I felt I need a coach. Still, now I feel like I need that freedom, just to stay and just to play with what I learned from Darren [Cahill] for years.”
“Now I feel more relaxed, I feel more chilled. The priorities are changing a little bit. I’m more responsible for myself and I try to solve my own problems, on court and off court.”
As for Mertens, the former World No 12 defeated three Top 10 opponents in in her run to the Doha title, Kiki Bertensand Angelique Kerber in the quarter-finals and semi-finals, respectively, before taking out Halep.
“I was really happy the way I played this week, actually,” she said. “I’m happy about the process that I made, starting out playing less well and then getting better every match.
“This is why you do it, to beat those top 10 players and getting the victory at the end.”
Down a set and a break to the reigning Roland Garros champion, Mertens summoned her best tennis to tire out her in-form opposition, spurred on by advice coach David Taylor gave during the match.
“He said to stay positive, stay in the game, that I deserve to be here in the final after this week, and he said that I’m playing well this week.
“He kept on cheering for me, even though I was losing, but playing the right way.”
Though she stunned Elina Svitolina to reach her first Grand Slam semi-final 13 months ago at the Australian Open, Mertens views this latest effort as an even bigger success, citing her wins over Bertens and Kerber as a sign of improved consistency.
“It’s a big moment for me, getting this victory. Of course playing in a Grand Slam and getting the semis is really a great achievement, but I wanted a step further to getting this trophy.
“Playing against those Top 10 players, which I back to back did this week, and especially also with the tennis I played, I think this one would be the nicest victory.
“Consistency is one of the key things to be a top player. I think Kiki Bertens already did a good job showing that last year and this year. That was a really tough match for me, but I think they were all good matches, all a part of process that I made this week.”