Aryna Sabalenka stormed past Elise Mertens into the Round of 16 on Saturday, where she will meet Belinda Bencic at the Australian Open, while other early winners on Day 6 included Karolina Pliskova, Zhang Shuai, Donna Vekic and 17-year old Linda Fruhvirtova.
I was just ready for everything. Whatever's going to happen on court, I'm ready for that. It's still about a lot of positive emotions for me, but I'm trying to stay away from negative, and just fight for every point. Aryna Sabalenka
Sabalenka extended her winning streak of matches to 7 when she ended Mertens’ hopes, 6-2 6-3, after just 74 minutes on Margaret Court Arena, striking 32 winners in the process.
The Belarusian and Belgian have won 5 titles together, including two Grand Slams at the 2019 US Open and the 2021 Australian Open, and they are good friends.
Their win at Melbourne Park two years ago heralded the end of their successful partnership as Sabalenka opted to focus her energies more on singles.
While yet to break through that major semi-final barrier in singles, the Belarusian has re-established herself after a rough year ironing out her wildly erratic serve, and entered this showdown without conceding a set in her first 6 matches of the year.
“It’s really tough to play against her, she’s a great player and is always fighting,” Sabalenka said. “I knew it’s going to be tough.
“I’m super happy that I was able to stay focused from beginning to the end to win this match because she’s an amazing player.”
Sabalenka, who now leads Mertens, the 26th seed, 5-2 in their head-to-head, including victories in their last 6 encounters, is looking more and more as a contender for the title in a week’s time.
A near-flawless start and finish by the No 5 seed book-ended the tight spot she managed to scrap herself out of early in the second set against Mertens.
Showing off her variety, a touch volley secured a 5-2 lead and Sabalenka managed a second break to take the set after 26 minutes.
Sabalenka’s 12 winners to just 4 unforced errors were a snapshot of the near perfect start, before a fired-up Mertens finally wedged her foot in the door at 0-2 down in the second set.
The Belgian broke for the first time when her opponent sent an overhead flying wide, and levelled after she finally ended a 12-minute, 7-deuce game on serve.
Her cries of ‘allez’ made way for a bellow of ‘c’mon’ and the Rod Laver Arena crowd egged her on for more, only for Sabalenka to close that door firmly shut at the 75-minute mark.
In the end, Sabalenka proved too overwhelming, with 32 winners to Mertens’ 12.
Sabalenka is now into the Round of 16 in Melbourne for the 3rd straight year, although she has never been able to progress beyond this stage at this major.
To the press later, Sabalenka said the key was her calmness on the court.
“That’s pretty much it, I think,” she said. “I was just ready for everything. Whatever’s going to happen on court, I’m ready for that.
“It’s still about a lot of positive emotions for me, but I’m trying to stay away from negative, and just fight for every point.”
Sabalenka will now play Belinda Bencic after the Swiss reached the 4th round for the first time since 2016, beating Italy’s Camila Giorgi, 6-2 7-5, on Rod Laver Arena.
2021’s Olympic gold medalist took 1 hour and 40 minutes to hold off the hard-hitting but sometimes erratic World No 70.
Bencic breezed through Saturday’s first set on Rod Laver Arena, but Giorgi put up a much sturdier test in the second set.
The Swiss successfully fended off 2 break points in a difficult hold for 5-3, but the Italian powered her way to a break when Bencic served for the match at 5-4.
“I’m really happy I got a second chance to serve it out,” Bencic said. “But overall I think it was a great match.
“[At 6-5] I just tried to relax. My coach [Dmitri Tursunov] was showing me relax [signals].”
Although the 12th-seed was broken, she broke serve in the following game and then served out to love for the win.
“I’m happy with the win,” Bencic told the press. “Of course [Giorgi is] a very explosive player. She has a lot of power when she hits the ball.
“It’s not easy, of course, to play against her, but I think I was mentally ready for that.
“Even though she broke me back after [leading 5-4], I just tried to keep doing the same thing, and I’m happy I served it out in the second chance.”
Bencic won 50 percent of points returning both the Giorgi first serve and second serve in the match, while she improved her head-to-head record to 4-2 against the Italian.
Sabalenka and Bencic are both on a roll this year in Australia, each having won titles in Adelaide earlier this month, and both have yet to drop a set in Melbourne while they are now on 7-match unbeaten runs.
Something will have to give when the two top-tenners meet on Monday for a place in the quarter-finals.
“Sabalenka is a very aggressive player, has a lot of power,” said Bencic, who is aiming to become only the second Swiss woman to win the Australian Open after Martina Hingis, the 1997, 1998 and 1999 champion.
Bencic, who last week returned to the world’s Top 10 for the first time since 2021, has Sabalenka’s former coach Dmitry Tursunov in her corner for the 4th-round encounter.
“Dmitry was her coach before, so he can help me a lot,” said Bencic. “I hope so!”
The former World No 4, who has won 5 of her 7 titles on hard courts, is grateful to have her new coach in her corner.
“It’s working really well, we are working hard, I’m changing some things, I’m out of my comfort zone and just trying to do things better on the court, trying to be more disciplined and just keep improving my game,” Bencic said.
Sabalenka and Bencic have split their two previous meetings, but they have not played each other in nearly 4 years.
“[Bencic is] a great fighter, a great player, moving well, hitting the ball quite clean,” Sabalenka said. “She’s in good shape, as well. So, yeah, I’m really looking forward for this battle.”
Meanwhile, former top-ranked Czech Karolina Pliskova also reached the last 16 with a 6-4 6-2 win over Varvara Gracheva from Russia after an hour and 17 minute outing on Rod Laver Arena.
Pliskova, who last made the second week in Melbourne in 2019, did not face a break point.
“My serve, it can be a really good weapon,” she said. “I’m not doing as much running from the baseline.’’
The No 30 seed put in a clinical serving performance, losing just 11 points in 9 service games to earn her 4th career appearance in the Australian Open second week.
“[The] last couple of years were tough, especially missing it last year,” Pliskova told reporters afterwards. “I think the conditions here, they can be quite good for me.
“I’ve been playing quite well early in this year. So excited to be here, just enjoying, happy to be back on the center court with two-sets victory.”
The Czech broke Gracheva in a 5-deuce 1-1 game in the opening set, and never trailed again in the match.
She also broke Gracheva in her first and last service games of the second set.
“I thought she actually played quite well,” Pliskova said. “I was expecting maybe little bit easier match.
“It’s the third round of a Slam so you have to be ready for anything. She beat some good players, but I think I was quite solid, serving well. Didn’t really have many troubles out there.”
To reach her 4th career Australian Open quarter-final, Pliskova will need to beat the No 23 seed, Zhang Shuai from China, who ended the run of American qualifier Katie Volynets, 6-3 6-2, on her birthday.
For the first time since she reached the quarter-finals in 2016, Zhang is back in the second week after a comprehensive 62 minute win over Volynets, striking 20 winners to the American’s 9, and breaking serve 4 times while never losing her own.
To return to the Last 8, she will have to break a winless spell against Pliskova as the Czech leads their head-to-head 7-0, with their first meeting coming back in 2012, but they have not played each other in nearly 5 years.
Although she has never beaten Pliskova, Zhang won a set in 4 of those matches.
Donna Vekic from Croatia also advanced to the 4th-round for the second time in 3 years with a 6-2 6-2 win over Nuria Parrizas Diaz of Spain, and her next opponent is the teenage Czech, Linda Fruhvirtova, who beat her compatriot Marketa Vondrousova, 7-5 2-6 6-3, in a tight meeting.
“It was a great match,” Vekic said after her win. “Actually, the last two matches I’ve been playing really well, playing better each match.
“So I’m really happy with my performance and the way I’m playing, so hopefully, I can continue that way.”
Fruhvirtova was down a break in the decider ahead of winning 5 games in a row to put herself in the Round of 16 at the Australian Open for the first time in just her second Grand Slam appearance.
The 17-year old’s play early on signalled her talent but there were also signs of her lack of experience at this level.
Nevertheless, the young Czech impressed by bouncing back from a quick second-set loss and an early deficit in the decider.
Aided by a Vondrousova leg injury, Fruhvirtova, who took a time-out late in the third set, received a reprieve, and she cleaned up her game to keep the 2019 French Open finalist on the move, not allowing her to get into a groove with her battle-tested groundstrokes.