As friends and doubles partners, top-seeds Aryna Sabalenka and Elise Mertens managed 3-set wins to reach the final of the season-ending Upper Austria Ladies Linz on Saturday where they will play each other.
At the beginning of this tournament, I said it would be very cool to play Elise in the final, and now here we are. It's a great thing, and she's a great player. Every match we've played before has been at a great level and big fight, so I'm really looking forward to it. 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, the World No 11, survived a titanic tussle with a surging Czech Barbora Krejcikova, while Mertens rallied from behind to defeat Ekaterina Alexandrova from Russia, 2-6 6-1 7-5.
By reaching the final, Sabalenka will enter the top 10 of the WTA rankings on Monday, overtaking Serena Williams, and is seeking her 8th career title and 3rd of the season, which would equal Simona Halep in the shortened 2020 season.
Sabalenka extended her winning streak to 8 matches in a row on Saturday, navigating a late onslaught from Krejcikova to see off the Czech, 7-5, 4-6, 6-3 and reach the Upper Austria Ladies Linz final.
“It wasn’t an easy match for me,” Sabalenka said after the match. “She played really well. I didn’t play my best, but I tried my best, so I’m happy I could handle this game and win it.
“I’m really happy with my level and these results, especially after I was down 6-0, 4-0 during one of my matches in Ostrava.
“I didn’t expect something like this to happen, but winning that match gave me a lot because I changed so much in my preparation and my mental game.
“Sometimes you have to play matches like that to improve in a big way.
“I can’t say I’m so surprised by this level, but I know I worked very hard to show this level, so I really appreciate my team and what my coach has given, as well.”
The Belarusian hadn’t lost a set all week in Linz, easing through the likes of Jasmine Paolini and Stefanie Voegele before Oceane Dodin was forced to retire with an injury in the second set of their quarter-final clash.
“I’ve been working a lot with my, former hitting partner, now coach, on certain shots like shot cross court and other variations, so that’s some of my biggest improvements,” she said. “My serve and return have improved a lot, as well.
“I think this helped me a lot to find my rhythm in singles again, and play this well again.”
Krejcikova, a former WTA Doubles No 1, is in the midst of a singles surge, having made her first Grand Slam second week at Roland Garros, and making Into the Top 100 for the first time in her career.
The 24-year-old was aiming to reach her second career WTA final, and first since she finished runner-up in Nürnberg as a qualifier back in 2017.
Looking to make an early push, Sabalenka was first to break, and although Krejcikova levelled proceedings, the Belarusian continued to apply pressure on the Czech’s serve, which ultimately faltered as she broke for the opening set.
Leading by a set and a break in the second, Sabalenka appeared to have things in hand when Krejcikova battled her way back into the match, turning the tables on the top seed and rallying from a 2-0 deficit to orchestrate 2 breaks to take it into a final set.
The ensuing decider saw them both save break points through the first 7 games, and though Krejcikova initially dug out of a 0-40 hole in the 8th, she couldn’t save a 4th break point chance engineered by Sabalenka, and the top seed served out the match to love.
Earlier, Mertens lost five straight games from 2-1 up in the opening set against Alexandrova but eased herself through the second before being broken while serving for the match in the third.
The Belgian nevertheless dropped only 3 points in the next 2 games to wrap up the win.
“It was a tough one, especially in the first set, when she was serving unbelievably well,” Mertens said after the match. “I think I managed to do better in the second and third sets, throwing in some loop and slice.
“She hits pretty hard so I felt like if I gave her rhythm, she was controlling the points, so I tried mixing things up and that worked today.”
Alexandrova, the 2018 runner-up in Linz, made the brighter start before the No 2 seed got the better of her after 2 hours and 5 minutes on the grey indoor hard court of the TipsArena Linz.
Mertens has played her best tennis of the season after the COVID-19 lockdown ended in August, reaching the Prague Open final and the Western & Southern Open semi-finals before securing a second straight US Open quarter-final appearance in Flushing Meadows.
“I try to play well at every tournament, so I can’t say if I’m playing better now as opposed to before lockdown. I’m just trying to do my thing on court,” she said.
“I’m very happy to be in the finals, especially since it’s the last tournament of the year, giving me an extra push to do well.
“I managed to get some hours on the court, but I’m happy with my performance overall, that I could turn around these tough matches. I’m looking forward to tomorrow.”
Battling through tough matches to kick off her Linz campaign, she was more on song against No 5 seed Veronika Kudermetova to book the clash against Alexandrova, who had won their only previous encounter on grass last spring.
Alexandrova, by contrast, began 2020 in scintillating form, winning her first WTA title in Shenzhen and made her first Premier-level semi-final at the St Petersburg Ladies Trophy.
She did not drop a set en route to the semi-finals in Linz, snagging 2 crucial service breaks against Mertens and serving out the set on her first opportunity before putting herself 6 games from the championship match.
Mertens was emphatic in surging ahead 4-0 in the second set before levelling the set as the 24-year old Russian misfired off her backhand.
A former World No 12, Mertens came out ahead of the early exchange of breaks in the decider, and soon led 5-3 with the finish line in sight.
Alexandrova made a brave last stand, winning 8 of the next 11 points to even the final set at 5 games apiece, but overhit on critical shots and Mertens ultimately regained the lead, clinching victory as the Russian made a final backhand error.
“I like to play matches, and I like to play tennis, which is why I played so much after the break,” Mertens said. “I have a passion for this sport, and I try to do my best and win every time.
“Of course, that’s not always possible, but under the circumstances, I’m happy with how well I’ve been able to hold up mentally.”
The 21st-ranked Mertens could win her 6th career title, but standing between the former Australian Open semi-finalist and a first title of the season is the top seed and her longtime doubles partner, Sabalenka, who is relishing the prospect of the final match.
“At the beginning of this tournament, I said it would be very cool to play Elise in the final, and now here we are. It’s a great thing, and she’s a great player.,” Sabalenka said with a grin.
“Every match we’ve played before has been at a great level and big fight, so I’m really looking forward to it.”