Doubles partners Aryna Sabalenka and Elise Mertens faced off to decide the winner of the Rose Group at the Hengqin Life WTA Elite Trophy Zhuhai on Friday, having both scored wins over Maria Sakkari earlier in the week.
And I'm just ready for it, and it's going to be a big challenge, but I'm ready for it Aryna Sabalenka
Mertens held the edge 2-1 going into the final rubber, including saving a match point to take their only prior hardcourt encounter 2-6 7-6(1) 6-0 in the third round of Montréal 2018.
The Belgian recalled winning the US Open doubles with Sabalenka: “Yeah, that was a really special two weeks, also in singles and in doubles.
“So, yeah, it’s the first time that we played a finals of a Grand Slam together and we both were a little bit nervous, of course. But we are really happy with the title.
“And it’s been a good doubles year so far.”
Having played doubles, Mertens admitted that she doesn’t know much about Sabalenka’s singles game.
“She actually came to me like, ‘We’re playing each other, did you see the group?’
“She has a lot of private sessions with the coach.
“Me too, actually. Just to get to know the courts a little bit better and everything. Sometimes we play doubles, we practice doubles, but not that often, actually, our main focus is on singles.”
The two are set to feature as No 1 seeds at next week’s Shiseido WTA Finals Shenzhen in the doubles event.
Sabalenka knew it would not be easy to overcome Mertens in singles.
“She’s a really consistent player and I think she’s moving well,” Sabalenka said.
“I just remember I played against her a couple of times and it was really tough matches. And I’m just ready for it, and it’s going to be a big challenge, but I’m ready for it.
“It feels strange because we’re in the same group. But, no, it feels really okay. It doesn’t feel any weird things, so I’m happy to focus on the singles this week.”
When it came down to the wire, it was the 4th-seeded Sabalenka who claimed the last remaining semi-final spot in Zhuhai, outlasting the No 6 seed, 6-4 3-6 7-5, to win the Rose Group and reach the final four.
In a bruising battle Sabalenka clinched victory in 2 hours and 20 minutes, levelling their singles head-to-head at 2-2.
The Belarusian continues a rich vein of form in China with her entry into the Zhuhai semi-finals, having won 3 of her 4 career titles there, including the successful title defence at the Dongfeng Motor Wuhan Open earlier this month.
Sabalenka will now tussle with Karolina Muchova of the Czech Republic for a spot in the prestigious final.
Wimbledon quarter-finalist Muchova notched her semi-final place with a gruelling 3-set win over No 2 seed Sofia Kenin of the United States earlier on Friday.
The smooth style of Mertens put Sabalenka in early first-set trouble as the Belarusian faced 4 break points at 2-2, but the hard-hitting play of Sabalenka helped her erase those chances and come through a 10-minute game with a hold for 3-2.
Mertens continued to ease through her own service games, knocking off a volley for 3-3, then cruising to a love hold for 4-4.
Sabalenka, at this juncture, still kept her composure while blasting the ball, emerging the winner in a couple of lengthy rallies to hold for 5-4.
The Belarusian then went for broke with big returns at the start of the next game and was quickly rewarded with an 0-40 lead and triple set point.
Mertens saved 2, but on the 3rd, Sabalenka closed out a rally with a forehand winner to take the opener.
The Belgian turned the tables early in the second set, though, firing a forehand winner to attain triple break point at 1-1.
Sabalenka fought off 2 chances, but shot an unforced error long on the 3rd to cede the early break, and Mertens held tight to that lead, surviving a break point before holding for 4-2 with a stirring angled passing winner.
The unforced error count rose for Sabalenka as the set progressed, and she handed a set point to Mertens at 5-3 with a netted backhand miscue.
Mertens ended up taking the set after Sabalenka hit one last unforced error into the net, and the Belgian found herself level at one set apiece with her doubles partner.
The Belarusian righted the ship early in the decider, going up a break for 2-1 after Mertens double-faulted on the 4th break point of that game, but couldn’t keep her unforced errors under control and handed the break back.
Up a further break and claiming a 5-4 lead after extending a rally with tremendous defence, Sabalenka fired a wicked forehand down the line for a clean winner.
Mertens fought back once more, as the Belgian pulled out incredible defence skills of her own when Sabalenka tried serving for victory, and she levelled the match at 5-5.
Sabalenka broke again in the next game, though, after Mertens missed a forehand put-away while down break point.
With a second chance to serve out the match, Sabalenka saw miscues erase 2 match points, and Mertens reached break point to queue up a decisive tiebreak, but the Belarusian staved off the break point with big hitting, culminating with a crosscourt backhand winner to pull back to deuce.
A strong serve set up the her third match point, which she converted at last with an error-forcing forehand, scoring her win after 2 hours and 20 minutes.
She next takes on Muchova in the semi-finals on Saturday, hoping to take her run to the final.