Elise Mertens, the 16th seed, overcame a slow start to defeat erstwhile junior rival Katie Boulter, 6-4 6-1, at the Miami Open presented by Itaú on Friday, and while 16th-seeded Kiki Bertens fell at the hands of Liudmila Samsonova, Naomi Osaka and Karolina Pliskova scored wins to reach the 3rd round.
I know her pretty well from juniors, and I remember playing her at Wimbledon. We played every tournament together. It's definitely necessary in women's tennis to serve better, and also to step inside the court a little more. A positive evolution! Elise Mertens
After 15 minutes, Mertens, who hails from Belgium, faced a point to fall behind 0-4, but ground out that hold before going on a tear to win 12 of the last 14 games as the Briton’s challenge fell away.
Mertens’ win-loss record in 2021 now stands at 12-2, including the Gippsland Trophy title, and the intelligent, varied tennis she played against Boulter demonstrated exactly why.
Five aces and a fine balance of flat-hitting offence with speedy defence enabled her to dominate an increasingly error-strewn opponent.
“It’s definitely something special when you grow up with someone in juniors, and ITFs, then see each other on the WTA Tour,” Mertens reflected. “It was a tough start but she was playing well.
“I wasn’t playing aggressive enough, maybe too patient. But I turned it around pretty good. Serve was going better, more aggressive tennis as it should be.”
Mertens had not faced Boulter since the pair’s junior days in 2013-14, when the Brit led their head-to-head 2-1.
“I know her pretty well from juniors, and I remember playing her at Wimbledon,” Mertens added. “We played every tournament together.
“It’s definitely necessary in women’s tennis to serve better, and also to step inside the court a little more. A positive evolution!”
Meanwhile, World No 2 Naomi Osaka has now won her last 22 contested matches after ousting Australia’s Ajla Tomljanovic, 7-6(3) 6-4, on Friday, in what proved to be a tough opening test for her.
“This is my first match since Australia, so I just really wanted to play well,” the reigning AO champion said. “I kind of feel like I’m at home here, because I grew up [near here] for most of my life.”
Osaka last defeat came in February 2020, when she suffered a clay-court loss at the Billie Jean King Cup to Spain’s Sara Sorribes Tormo.
Against the World No 77, however, the Japanese fired 36 winners, with aces accounting for a whopping 13 of those and despite being broken twice, Osaka still won 81 percent of her first-service points in the 98-minute affair.
“I think for me, today, I served really well when I needed to,” Osaka said. “Unfortunately I got broken a couple of times but, I think, when it really, really mattered, I was able to serve well, so I’m happy with that.”
Tomljanovic provided a stiff challenge in the opening set, taking Osaka’s serve twice, but the 4-times Grand Slam champion hung on and dominated late to take the breaker, 7-3.
Both players held serve through 8 games in the second before Osaka broke the Aussie and then held serve to win the match.
“I was feeling a bit nervous,” Osaka admitted, “I saw a lot of fans out there… I’m happy I was able to get it done in two.
“I’m not sure if it was nerves or, just, I’m a bit rusty but my decision making on some shots was kind of questionable, but I think, overall, I learned as the match was going on.”
Osaka threw her racket at one stage, which seemed to release the tension she was feeling because, a few minutes later, with Tomljanovic serving at 5-4, she broke to love with 2 forehand winners and her loudest ‘Come on!’ of the day.
She carried the intensity into the tiebreak, hitting a forehand winner, a backhand winner, and 2 un-returnable serves, to turn the tide.
To her credit, Tomljanovic never gave up but she just couldn’t cash in when she needed to, and never got into the lead again, undone by her 24 unforced errors outpacing 16 winners.
Despite Osaka’s hard court prowess winning 4 of the last 6 majors contested on the surface, she has yet to surpass the 3rd round in Miami.
To make her first round of 16 here, she needs to get past surging Serbian qualifier Nina Stojanovic, who saved 2 match points to upset No 26 seed Yulia Putintseva, 5-7 7-5 6-2.
It is a spot of good fortune for Osaka, who has lost 3 of her 4 career matches against the Kazakh.
Elsewhere, 6th-seeded Pliskova recovered from a break down at the start of her first set by winning 11 of the last 12 games to beat China’s Zheng Saisai, 6-2 6-1, and set up a meeting with America’s Jessica Pegula, who cruised past Storm Sanders from Australia, 6-3 6-4.
The Czech, who was the 2019 runner-up in Miami, was troubled only briefly as she went down a break at the start of her match, before swatting Zheng aside, finishing with 27 winners to 12 unforced errors, with most of the latter coming in the first 3 games of the match.
Pegula is Pliskova’s nemesis, having played twice in the past month, with the American winning in straight sets in both Doha and Dubai.
A qualifier caused another upset when Liudmila Samsonova dominated her match against 10th-seeded Bertens, stunning the former Top 5 player, 6-2 6-1, in just 55 minutes.
This was only the Dutchwoman’s’ 3rd match back since having Achilles tendon surgery in December, but it was nevertheless still a comprehensive display by the Russian, who earned her first-ever Top 20 win.
The World No 126 was impeccable on serve, winning 24 of her 26 first-service points and never facing a break point during the meeting.
Samsonova charged through the first set, and crushed a winner down the line to break for 2-0 in the second.
The Russian continued to press, firing a passing shot winner to earn a second break for 5-1, then calmly served out the victory to earn a second-round meeting with No 23 seed Maria Sakkari from Greece.
Sakkari also had a quick second-round win as she dispatched Arantxa Rus from the Netherlands, 6-2 6-3, in an hour and a quarter.
Also, on Friday afternoon, an all-American affair went the way of No 28 seed Amanda Anisimova, when she eased past 2018 Miami Open champion Sloane Stephens, 6-3 6-3.
In just her second tournament of the season, the 19-year-old needed an hour and a half to move into the 3rd round in Miami for the first time in her career.
Anisimova fired 24 winners in the match, three times Stephens’ total, and converted 5 of her 9 break points.