The exceptional season on American hard courts keeps on rolling for Elise Mertens & Aryna Sabalenka, as the No 4 seeds overcame the all-American tandem of Caroline Dolehide & Vania King, 4-6 6-3 6-4, to book their place in the US Open women’s doubles final on Sunday.
It was really close, the whole match. I think we made the difference by just believing in ourselves, playing aggressive, and staying positive. Elise Mertens
It will be the first-ever Grand Slam final for both Mertens of Belgium & Sabalenka of Belarus, after fighting back from a set down to squeak past the first-time pairing of Dolehide and 2010 US Open women’s doubles champion King.
The match concluded after 2 hours and 19 minutes of tense all-court play under the closed roof of Louis Armstrong Stadium on Friday afternoon.
“It was really close, the whole match,” Mertens told the press, after their win. “I think we made the difference by just believing in ourselves, playing aggressive, and staying positive.”
Sabalenka agreed, saying that ‘as long as we stay in the match, as long as we focus on our game, focus on being aggressive, then I think we have a lot of chances to win matches’.
The fourth seeds pulled off the ‘Sunshine Double’ earlier in the season by going 10-0 en route to back-to-back titles at Indian Wells and Miami, and are still notching their best results at the most prestigious events in the United States.
The victorious team won 72 percent of points on their first serves combined, converted 4 of their 10 break points, and fended off 16 of the 19 break points the Americans held in the clash.
“We’ve been close a couple times, quarters at Wimbledon, semis at the French, so it’s a really nice feeling that we’re accomplishing good things,” said Mertens, reflecting on their solid play in Grand Slam events this season.
“We’re really happy that we’re in the finals, but it’s not done yet, so we’re going to go for it on Sunday.”
Mertens & Sabalenka will face another top team in the final: No 8 seeds Victoria Azarenka of Belarus & Ashleigh Barty of Australia.
Barty is the defending champion, having won the title last year with CoCo Vandeweghe, and she and Azarenka are on a roll, having dispatched Viktoria Kuzmova & Aliaksandra Sasnovich with a loss of just a single game in their semi-final on Thursday.
Mertens & Sabalenka, however, go into the final knowing that they defeated Azarenka & Barty in the only prior meeting between the 2 teams, in the semi-finals of Miami.
“We played them once,” said Mertens. “We’re going to look at how they play. They won pretty easily their last couple of matches, so we’ll try to break their rhythm.”
The American team broke serve in the first game of the semi-final, as King & Dolehide both found overhead winners in the last 2 points.
The fearsome Sabalenka forehand made a stirring appearance to convert a break point and reach parity at 3-3, but Dolehide’s powerful game put her squad up another break at 5-4.
Dolehide, who turned 21 on Thursday, followed up with a service hold to clinch the one-set lead.
Rebounding in the second set, Mertens crushed an overhead to force an error from Dolehide and earn a service break for 3-1.
At 5-3 Mertens faced a 0-40 deficit on her serve before strong net play pulled her team to deuce and 2 points later, a Sabalenka put-away levelled the match at a set apiece.
Mertens & Sabalenka got out to an early lead in the decider, as a volley by the Belgian forced a netted error from Dolehide on the No 4 seeds’ 3rd break point of the game to go up 2-1.
Aggressive play by Dolehide and pinpoint shots down the line by King gave the Americans 2 break points at 4-3, but Sabalenka punched punishing volleys on those chances en route to a hold for 5-3.
With Sabalenka serving for the match at 5-4, the American team held 2 more break points to level the set, but the Belarusian saved those with a powerful forehand and a huge serve respectively.
Dolehide & King fended off one match point, but Sabalenka scampered all over the court, eventually powering through her opponents, to queue up a 2nd, which she converted with a final forehand winner.
On the court, but when they come together they are a perfect combination, and that synergy extends to the press room.
“I take everything from her. She doesn’t know that, but I take a lot of things,” Sabalenka said, as the two dissolved into laughter.
“She helps me cool down on the court, sometimes. She’s like, ‘Come on, come on. It’s okay. Just do the next one. Keep going.
We’ll take it.’ Or sometimes, when I make a stupid shot, but we still win the point, and I’m like, ‘Oh, no, no, no…’, she’ll say, the favourite one is, ‘It’s good enough.’ ”
“[For me], it’s her fighting spirit,” Mertens continued. “She’s always fighting on the court. She stays positive and serves really well, and I can do some things at the net, so it’s working for now.”
In the spring, the pair recounted the beginnings of their partnership as a happy accident.
Looking for more match practice to help their singles games, they decided to team up, and the Belgian noted the early potential in their partnership.
“Just one day, we decided to try to play with each other. It’s worked really well in the Australian Open,” added Sabalenka, after they triumphed in the California desert. “[There], it was learning each other. And now we are, like, ‘Okay, so she’s doing this. I’m doing this.’ So we are good.”
Six months later, and with a lot more winning on their resume, not much about the pair’s mindset had changed.
“We are still focusing on singles, and maybe that’s why we’re playing good in doubles,” the Belarusian continued on Friday. “We’re just looking match by match, and not thinking about anything else.
“Usually, in singles, it’s a lot of pressure. You’re thinking about everything around the court, but in doubles, you just go there and enjoy the game.
“We focus on our game, focus on being aggressive, focus on improving something which will help for singles. I think that’s what we need to learn. Nothing really has changed. We just enjoy our time on the court.”
In the final, against Azarenka & Barty, the duo are set to face another doubles partnership that has a similar dynamic to their own.
“As long as we stay in the match, as long as we focus on our game, focus on being aggressive, then I think we have a lot of chances to win matches.”
Regardless of the result in the final, a deep run in the doubles has also allowed the Belgian to add to a best-ever US Open.
Seeded No 25 in the singles, Mertens was defeated in the quarter-finals, in her best Open result and 2nd quarter-final at a Slam overall, by Bianca Andreescu on Wednesday, despite winning the first set.
“It’s always tough, because mentally, you wanted to win the quarter-finals and you gave everything,” she reflected. “I felt a little bit tired, but she kept me going.”
At that moment, Sabalenka knew just what to say, and interjected with a laugh: “I’m sorry, I didn’t want to lose!”
With a grin and laugh of her own, Mertens composed herself and concluded: “If you have the opportunity to play well in a Grand Slam… in quarter-finals, semi-finals, or even finals… you have to take it.”