Elise Mertens scuppered Elina Svitolina’s hopes for the Australian Open title whethe young Belgian knocked out the fourth seed, 6-4 6-0, to reach the semi-finals on Tuesday afternoon.
She has never been beyond the third round of a Grand Slam before and has made rapid strides up the rankings over the past year.
I have no words; I don’t know what to say. I have so many mixed emotions. I gave it all today, I fought. I got a little stress at the end so I played, my game and it went well today. Elise Mertens
In fact, the 22-year old could not get into the main draw 12 months ago but currently stands at No 37 in the world, set to break into the top 20 by virtue of making the last four.
“I have no words; I don’t know what to say,” the excited Belgian Martens said.
“I have so many mixed emotions. I gave it all today, I fought. I got a little stress at the end so I played, my game and it went well today.”
She was the aggressor against Svitolina, hitting 26 winners compared to just 14 for her opponent, and wrapped up a deserved victory and a date with either Caroline Wozniacki or Carla Suarez Navarro on Thursday.
Mertens may well have been flying under the radar in Melbourne but she was always going to be a threat and now finds herself in the full glare of the spotlight.
Svitolina was also looking to make her first major semi-final but nerves seemed to play a part as the Ukrainian made uncharacteristic errors, especially at the big moments, while Mertens was able to swing freely.
“She’s a great mover, she’s a really strong player,” said Mertens.
“She started well at the beginning of the year so I knew it was going to be tough. So I tried to play aggressive, make her move, come to the net a bit more – just tried to play aggressive on the court.”
Mertens is the first Belgian player to reach the semi-finals here since former champion Kim Clijsters, at whose academy she trains, and her mentor has been in constant touch.
Addressing Clijsters, who was watching back home in the middle of the night, Mertens said: “I’m trying to be in your footsteps.”
Like Clijsters, Mertens likes to keep it simple and her game plan was uncomplicated: see ball, hit ball; and it seems to be working.
She is coached by her boyfriend Robbe Ceyssens, a man Clijsters thinks does not get nearly enough credit.
“He means a lot,” she said of the importance of Ceyssens. “He’s by my side all the time. Since we have been together my game has only gone upward. All credit to him.”
With the women’s game in a constant state of flux, with six women chasing the world No 1 ranking at the start of the tournament, Mertens has a good chance getting her hands on the trophy here.
She made all the initial running, returning aggressively and mixing up her game cleverly, taking every opportunity to approach the net and cut off Svitolina’s passing shots.
She broke the Ukrainian in the third game and then again for a 5-2 lead.
Serving for the set, Mertens tightened up and a double fault on break point handed the World No 4 a way back.
Another double fault allowed Svitolina a glimmer of hope at 15-30 on her next opportunity, but Mertens composed herself and landed three first serves to secure the set 6-4.
The Belgian had powered 16 winners to Svitolina’s 8 and significantly won 9 of 12 points at the net.
Svitolina took a bathroom break in an attempt to regroup, to no avail, and she was immediately in trouble at 0-40 at the start of the second.
She saved those break points but a weak forehand into the net offered up a fourth and Mertens landed an overhead smash on the sideline to secure the game, and another soon followed.
A set and two breaks to the good, the Belgian was able to breathe a little more easily, and a third courtesy of a sumptuous backhand pass took Mertens to the brink of the last four at 5-0 with clear water.
A final backhand finished the job and Mertens took her place in the semi-finals where second seed Caroline Wozniacki or Carla Suarez Navarro waits for a place in Saturday’s final.
“It’s amazing,” said the Belgian. “I mean, not expected, especially today. I played against her last year. Really tough match.
“But, yeah, I was in the zone today. It was a really great match. I played really well, so I’m really happy.”
She had completely humbled Svitolina with little fuss, calling it the biggest win of her life.
“I think so. Especially against her. She’s a great mover. She can do great things, defence but also offensive. I guess this is one of my greater wins.”
Mertens came into Melbourne having defended her Hobart International title.
“I guess — well, I played Hobart, defended my title, so I was kind of happy about that, too. Didn’t really have a lot of expectations here,” she added.
“I played a qualifier first round, so I was expected to win. Not always easy, but yeah, as it moved forward, first round, second round, I didn’t really expect to be in the semis.”
Now, if she makes the distance, she will emulate Clijsters, who won at Melbourne Park in 2011.
Mertens had a message for her countrywoman: “Kim, thanks for watching and don’t get too stressed.”
Later, in her news conference, Svitolina admitted that had been playing with a hip injury this fortnight.
“I start to feel it actually after the final in Brisbane,” said Svitolina. “Then it was getting worse and then was up and down.
“You know, I always had the tape, like, a heavy tape under the shorts. So, you know, sometimes, you know, it was fine, but today she’s playing good level, so I had to push myself.
“She didn’t give me opportunities. All the credit to her, because she played really good tennis and was only today, so I couldn’t really match it.”
As for playing either second-seeded Caroline Wozniacki or unseeded Carla Suarez Navarro in the semis, Mertens said: “I played both of them once before, all three-setters. So it’s going to be a tough match. Semifinal, anything can happen.
“I just have to believe in myself and still have energy left to do great stuff.
“Well, I’ve got nothing to lose, that’s for sure. I have no points to defend. I guess I’m a bit, well, the underdog, as today, but I’m ready for it. I mean, I have a lot of energy left. Mentally/physically good. I’m just going to give it all and see where it ends.”