Elise Mertens battled past Simona Halep at the Mutua Madrid Open on Tuesday, 4-6 7-5 7-5, coming from a set down to upset the World No 3, who won the trophy here in 2016 and 2017.
When you can move well, you can hit hard. Aryna Sabalenka
The Belgian will face her friend and doubles partner Aryna Sabalenka in the quarter-finals after the Belarusian dispatched America’s Jessica Pegula, 6-1 6-2.
In the 4th quarter-final at the foot of the draw, Russia’s Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova upset another American, 11th seed Jennifer Brady, 7-5 6-7(8) 6-3, and will meet Czech Karolina Muchova, who took out the No 16 seed from Greece, Maria Sakkari, 6-0 6-7(9) 7-5.
In the big shock of the day, Mertens gradually wore down Halep through dogged defence, putting a tight first set loss behind her to stick with the Romanian in the second.
Despite often being on the back foot, the Belgian 13th seed refused to give in and eventually clinched victory after 2 hours 34 minutes.
“She played really well, and she definitely deserved to win because she was stronger in the end,” Halep said. “I cannot say I played bad, but I did some mistakes, important mistakes.
“Sometimes it’s just a little bit and the match is going away.”
After winning the opener, the Romanian was unable to seal the match, which was dominated by breaks of serve, and it looked as if her dominance over Mertens would continue.
Mertens, however, did not let up this time, even though she was in deep trouble in the next two sets, going down a break at 4-3 in the second, and twice down a break at 3-2 and 4-3 in the third.
“I’m definitely happy,” Mertens said in her on-court interview. “I mean, it went on for hours. It was really a battle and it could have gone either way, but I’m really happy with the win, of course.”
Ruing being broken 10 times during the match, and having also broken her opponent on 9 occasions, Halep observed: “Well, I think my serve was bad today. She could dominate the return. Then it was really tough to get her, to push her a little bit more back.
“But I think she was playing very solid today. She was moving great, and also, she was hitting the ball well, so I think it was a good match.”
Mertens improved her match win record to 20-5 on the season with this win over the two-time Grand Slam champion.
“I have to recover, that’s the first thing,” Mertens said when looking ahead to the final eight. “But then, you know, just take it all in. I’m very excited to be in the quarterfinals for the first time here.”
Mertens will now face Sabalenka in the quarter-finals, who powered past Pegula with the loss of just 3 games.
The No 5 seed comprehensively dismantled the American after splitting their 2 prior meetings.
“I’m really happy with the level today,” Sabalenka said.
The only thing Sabalenka lost was the coin toss and Pegula opted to receive hoping, no doubt, to catch her opponent cold but the Belarusian was sharp from the get-go, opening with 1 aces and winning the first 6 points.
Although Pegula held for 1-all, it was clear that Sabalenka was in full control, running the American from corner to corner, firing big serves and drilling deep and hard returns.
“When you can move well,” she said, “you can hit hard.”
The first set flew by in 25 minutes and while Pegula hung in to 2-all, her flat strokes began to crumble in the face of such power and depth.
Sabalenka broke and, at 2-4, earned a double break with a net cord winner. Serving at 5-2, 30-30, she fired back-to-back aces.
Against Mertens, she holds a 4-2 record,
Together they won the Australian Open this year and they know each other’s games well.
“On the court, we are opponent and it’s different,” said Sabalenka. “Off the court, we are friends. She’s a great player.”
Elsewhere, Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova came through to the last eight after overcoming the United States’ Jennifer Brady, 7-5 6-7(8) 6-3 in a hard-fought match lasting 2 hours 48 minutes.
It was a topsy-turvy marathon on Tuesday, with the Russian failing to convert match points in the second set.
Pavlyuchenkova, who was a Madrid quarter-finalist a full decade ago in 2011, and is now World No 41, used her powerful game to fire 40 winners against 31 unforced errors and producing her second Top 20 victory of the week after beating Karolina Pliskova.
“I think it’s a hell of a draw since the first round,” Pavlyuchenkova told the media after her win. “Any tournament when you beat a Top 10, or I beat Karolina, she was No 6-seeded here, you think, ‘Okay, it either might be a little easier or open draw.’
“But it got even tougher. It gets tougher and tougher and tougher,” the Russian added with a smile.
Brady was broken in the first game of the match but levelled at 4-4 when forehand errors helped Pavlyuchenkova clinch another break for 6-5, and the Russian dutifully served her way to the one-set lead.
In the second, Pavlyuchenkova hit consecutive double-faults to drop serve at 2-1 while Brady cleaned up her forehand to surge to a 4-1 lead, but the advantage fell away as the Russian collected 3 straight games to reach 4-4, and from there, the duo had no trouble serving their way into a tiebreak.
Superb delivery continued in the breaker as the first 14 points went with serve, as Brady saved a match point at 6-5 while Pavlyuchenkova erased a set point at 7-6.
At last, returners took the next 2 points before Brady fired a backhand winner to reach 9-8 and garner her third set point, upon which Pavlyuchenkova double-faulted to cede the second set.
After an early exchange of breaks, Pavlyuchenkova won a 12-minute game to take a 4-2 lead, but Brady immediately pulled back on serve.
The Russian quickly reclaimed her advantage, breaking for 5-3 with a stellar backhand return to force an error, after which she grabbed a 2nd match point and converting it with a backhand pass down the line.
“I have been through a lot of difficult challenges this year and last year as well,” Pavlyuchenkova said. “But the only thing that keeps me going and motivates me is, I want to win so badly every match I play.
“That’s what we are basically playing for.”
Pavlyuchenkova’s next opponent is Karolina Muchova, who had an equally topsy-turvy encounter squeaking past No 16 seed Maria Sakkari, 6-0 6-7(9) 7-5, as the newest member of the Top 20 improved to 6-0 against Top 20 opposition in 2021.
She also failed to convert match points in the second-set tiebreak before rebounding to claim victory in the final set, recovering from being down a late break to do so.
After 2 hours 35 minutes, though, the Czech had held off the challenge from Sakkari, ranked just a single spot ahead of her at World No 19, and clinched the final quarter-final spot just before midnight in Madrid.
“I would actually appreciate to play two sets, but I’m happy I made it,” Muchova said with a smile during her post-match press conference. “It was a very tough match.
“It’s definitely good for confidence for the next matches.”
Muchova won 61 percent of points off of Sakkari’s second service overall, leading to her 8 breaks of serve, including 2 in the final 3 games of the match to steer her to victory.
“I tried to forget actually those [first] two sets, and it was 1-1, so we started with a clear slate,” Muchova said. “I just tried to stay focused and on every ball, to fight till the end. Yeah, it showed me that it was worth it.”