Belgium’s Elise Mertens won her first, somewhat topsy-turvy match, in the Rose Group at the Hengqin Life WTA Elite Trophy Zhuhai on Wednesday, effectively eliminating Maria Sakkari’s further participation, 6-2 3-6 6-1.
Just went a little bit up-and-down, my level, I tried too much, I think, in the second set. Elise Mertens
The two came into the match all square at 3 apiece, with Sakkari gaining the upper hand by winning both their 2016 Australian Open qualifying and Rabat quarter-final encounters earlier this year.
It was Mertens, however, who got off to the better start, while Sakkari’s inconsistency proved fatal in the long run.
The Greek had her share of highlights, though, particularly in striking a series of clean return winners in the initial stages and in grabbing the middle set.
After an opening hold of 4 straight service winners, her shotmaking counted for little on the scoreboard when counterweighted by a slew of groundstroke errors.
Whenever Mertens was in trouble on serve, the Belgian tightened her game up and regained momentum.
Having captured the first break for 2-1, Mertens managed to extricate herself from a 0-40 deficit in the 6th game, marking the start of a 12-point winning streak that took her to the brink of taking the set, which she pocketed on her 2nd set point as yet another Sakkari forehand found the net.
When Mertens held a break point in the first game of the second, the match could have easily slipped quickly away from Sakkari, who is contesting just her second tournament following a two-month post-US Open hiatus to recover from a wrist injury.
The 24-year-old was able to turn that game around to hold, sparking off a dramatic momentum shift.
A stern chat with her coach prompted the Greek into greater dynamism and accuracy off the ground as Mertens suddenly became error-prone.
Sakkari broke twice to build a 4-0 lead and held a point for 5-0 when Mertens double-faulted twice, taking her tally to 4, but the No 4 seed rallied to claim the game.
Recovering from her mid-match slump, the No 6 seed, who made the semis at the 2018 Australian Open, conjured up a series of brilliant backhand winners to get another 2 games up on the scoreboard.
Although it was too late to rescue the set, which Sakkari sealed with her 3rd ace, it was this form that Mertens took into the decider.
The two took a break ahead of the 3rd set and it was Mertens who took the early lead, 3-1, moving smoothly around the court and striking her backhand with authority.
Having got the edge after the three-break sequence, Sakkari’s tempestuous game began to fall apart again as the Greek’s form plummeted.
Mertens took full control, speeding to the finishing line and rattling off 16 out of the final 21 points of the match as Sakkari went awry on everything from overheads to put-aways.
The home stretch included her first 2 aces of the match and some spectacular defensive points in the final game to capture a victory that bolsters the World No 18’s hopes of getting out of the Zhuhai group stages on her second appearance here.
“Just went a little bit up-and-down, my level,” assessed Mertens afterwards. “I tried too much, I think, in the second set.
“She played better, so all credit to her. In the third set I just tried to step up my game a little bit, a little bit more aggressive, make some balls, just to try to build a point and then go for it.”
It was a fine start for No 6 seed but the end of Sakkari’s hopes after an hour and 44 minutes.
Having also lost 6-4 6-3 to No 4 seed Aryna Sabalenka on Tuesday, Sakkari finishes with a 0-2 record in the Rose Group and cannot now make the semi-finals, while Mertens’ clash with her doubles partner later this week will decide which of the two move into the last four.
To set that up, Mertens was able to post her first win over her Greek opponent since 2014, the year that saw her score 3 wins in 4 meetings in ITF events, but since moving up to Grand Slam and WTA level.
For Sakkari, she now will look to 2020 and hopes that she and fellow compatriot Stefanos Tsitsipas will team up to play mixed doubles at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.
The 24-year old, and 21-year-old Tsitsipas have previous experience of playing alongside each other, having represented Greece earlier this year at the Hopman Cup.
Sakkari, ranked at No 22 in the world, and 7th-ranked Tsitsipas will both be primarily focused on winning a medal in the singles event at the upcoming Olympics.
“I think we’re a pretty good team and we have high hopes for the Olympics,” she said. “Hopefully it’s going to happen.
“If we have a high ranking by the Olympics it’s going to happen for sure,”
Sakkari & Tsitsipas lost to Great Britain’s Katie Boulter & Cameron Norrie in their first mixed doubles match at the Hopman Cup but then beat USA’s Serena Williams & Frances Tiafoe and Switzerland’s Belinda Bencic & Roger Federer to finish the event with a positive record.