Aryna Sabalenka and Elise Mertens are not only long-time doubles partners but also good friends, and both are eying the prospect of meeting in the final of the Upper Austria Ladies Linz after they each booked their places in the quarter-finals.
I came here for the title and I will do everything to get it. I think I started really well, going for my shots and not missing at all,” she said. “She started playing more aggressively and using more power in the second set. I wasn’t as ready for that, but I adjusted quickly and that helped me win the match. Aryna Sabalenka
“I think this is the first time that this has happened, and it’s really cool,” Sabalenka said about sharing the top two seeding spots with Mertens. “I would like to play her in the finals, and that would be something really special.”
Sabalenka’s passage against qualifier Stefanie Voegele from Switzerland was somewhat smoother than Mertens’, who needed three sets to get past former World No 2 Vera Zvonareva.
The pair, who won the 2019 US Open women’s doubles together, secured their contrasting wins in the second round with the top seed losing just 3 games en route to her victory while Mertens was made to battle for her win as she beat the Russian, 6-4 5-7 6-2, in 2 hours and 32 minutes.
Sabalenka eased past the Swiss qualifier, 6-0 6-3, on Thursday to advance to her 6th quarter-final of the season, conceding just 3 points on her serve in the 26-minute opening set, and saving all 9 break points she faced before Voegele forced a tense finish in the second.
“I came here for the title and I will do everything to get it,” Sabalenka said in an on-court interview.
Sabalenka won her 6th straight match, having captured the J&T Banka Ostrava Open along with the doubles title with Mertens’ help.
“I think I started really well, going for my shots and not missing at all,” she said. “She started playing more aggressively and using more power in the second set.
“I wasn’t as ready for that, but I adjusted quickly and that helped me win the match.”
After playing several titanic matches in Ostrava, including one in which she trailed 6-0, 4-0 against Sara Sorribes Tormo, Sabalenka has been much crisper on key points in Linz.
“I’m working on my focus on the court,” she explained. “I’ve had a lot of matches where I was out of in the first set, and then by the time I was able to come back, we’d be in a third set, and those can be 50/50.
“So, I’m trying to put pressure on my opponents from the beginning of every match.
“I’ve also been working on the variation of my shots, so I’m not just one kind of player and can use every shot I have in my pocket.”
Sabalenka next plays French qualifier Oceane Dodin for a spot in the semi-finals, who defeated Sorana Cirstea, 6-4 6-4.
By reaching the final, the Belarusian could secure a Top 10 finish to her season and also tie her with Simona Halep for most titles won in 2020 at 3 apiece.
Later on, Mertens took to the court for an intriguing encounter with Zvonareva, a two-time Grand Slam runner-up and 2008 Olympic bronze medalist.
After injuries sidelined her for much of last year, the Russian won a 5th major doubles title at the US Open alongside Laura Siegemund and appeared in Linz as a wild card.
Breaking to open the match, Mertens staved off a late surge from the veteran to capture the opening set.
Undaunted, Zvonareva rebounded in some style by winning the first 4 games of the second set before taking a 5-2 lead.
Momentum shifted again as the Belgian levelled the set, only for Zvonareva to sweep the final 2 games and force a decider.
Mertens mirrored her experienced opposition in the final set, taking a 4-0 lead of her own before ultimately breaking for victory with a let-cord winner.
Up next for the two-time US Open quarter-finalist is No 5 seed Veronika Kudermetova, who advanced after three sets with Arantxa Rus earlier in the afternoon, 6-4 1-6 6-3, while she could face 5th seed Nadia Podoroska in the semi-final.
The Argentine, who reached the semi-finals at the French Open, was also forced to come from a set down to reach the last 8, beating 2018 champion Camila Giorgi, 6-7(4) 6-1 6-4, to set up a quarter-final against the 4th-seeded Ekaterina Alexandrova, winner over Russian compatriot Varvara Gracheva, 7-5 6-1.
Podoroska’s roller-coaster clash with Giorgi saw her drop a tight opening set to the heavy-hitting Italian, before rallying back to ease through the next two after a 2 hour and 32-minute battle on Linz’s iconic grey Centre Court.
“Camila is a great player and she plays really fast,” Podoroska told press in Spanish after the match. “She can run around the court very fast too, so it’s hard to get her out of position.
“She has a lot of power, so I knew I had to go after her and not let her take the initiative or let her get comfortable. I had to take so many risks, a lot more than I’m used to, but I knew that was the right way.
“The first set was really high-level, it could have gone either way. The second, I think I got myself together well because I had really lost my calm and my order.
“In the third, I felt much more comfortable playing first-strike tennis and I had gotten used to that fast pace, and I could keep up my patterns.”
The opening set saw Podoroska and Giorgi combine for 6 breaks of serve as both players roared out of the gates playing aggressively on the return.
The momentum swung between the two as Podoroska edged through the first rash of 3 breaks in a row to take a 2-1 lead, and later Giorgi raised her level to reel off 4 games in a row and surge in front, 5-3.
Podoroska did well to stay in the contest, breaking back and levelling the set at 5-5, but she couldn’t convert on 4 break point chances.
The No 6 seed saved 3 set points to hold and send them into a tiebreak, but Giorgi once again put her foot on the gas and claimed 4 points a row to take the first set by 7 points to 4.
The Argentine fought tooth and nail to hold her serve to start the second, saving 2 break points and being pushed to 6 deuces under Giorgi’s firepower, before racing ahead to a 3-0 lead.
As Giorgi’s high-octane game began to misfire, the inconsistency that has sometimes plagued the Italian’s powerful game reared its head again, and Podoroska closed out the set comfortably, 6-1.
Both were dialled into the decider that unfolded in a high-quality baseline contest, which crossed the two-hour mark.
Podoroska dropped just 4 points on her serve, claiming the lone break for a 4-3 lead and sealing her spot in the quarters in a remarkable turnaround.
“I didn’t know it was only 4 points,” Podoroska smiled afterwards. “I’ve been working on my serve to generate a bit more power, so that I can serve faster and do more damage.
“I’m playing with my legs most of all, engaging the whole body and not just the shoulder.
“The stat about only losing 4 points, it could be an improvement from my first serve, which I was determined to hit faster and harder to her forehand. That was my biggest change in the third set.”
Podoroska seeks her 4th semi-final of the season that would seal her career first WTA Top 50 finish.
“It’s good for me to [start the year inside the Top 50] and know that I will be playing in Australia, and then I will be playing in the States [at Indian Wells and Miami],” Podoroska reflected.
“It’s good to have the calendar a little bit more clear than in ITF, and playing against the top players.”