WTA Linz: A Cool Singles Final Between Two Great Players

WASHINGTON/LINZ, November 15, 2020 (by Michael Dickens)

As the final singles match in the final tournament of the 2020 WTA season arrives Sunday afternoon at the Upper Austria Ladies Linz, it seems fitting that it matches the two top seeds, No. 1 seed Aryna Sabalenka and No. 2 seed Elise Mertens. There will be no Cinderella finish here in Linz, the Austrian city that is famous for its Linzer Torte dessert pastry. Instead, expect a highly entertaining match from a couple of Top 20-caliber players who just happen to be doubles partners when they aren’t blazing a trail playing singles.

Last year, Sabalenka and Mertens teamed to win the “Sunshine Double” of the BNP Paribas Open in Indian Wells, Calif., and the Miami Open in Florida. Their partnership reached its zenith when they won the 2019 US Open for their first Grand Slam success. They won their fourth title as a pair last month at the J & T Banka Ostrava Open in the Czech Republic. For their final tournament this season, they decided to focus solely on singles and that was fine by both players.

Coming into Sunday’s title match, Sabalenka owns a 3-2 head-to-head advantage. She won their only meeting this year, 6-4, 6-3, in the second round of the Dubai Duty Free Tennis Championships back in February.

Neither World No. 11 Sabalenka, who has assured herself of a Top 10 ranking to finish the season, thanks to her 7-5, 4-6, 6-3 semifinal victory over No. 74 Barbora Krejcikova of the Czech Republic Saturday, nor the 21st-ranked Mertens, who fought off 2018 Linz finalist, No. 33 Ekaterina Alexandrova from Russia, 2-6, 6-1, 7-5, will confess to any awkwardness from their doubles partnership spilling over in the heat of battle in a singles final. Not surprisingly, it has been the topic of many of their virtual press conferences this week. Both have been gracious in answering questions from reporters about it.

“At the beginning of this tournament, I said it would be very cool to play Elise in the final, and now here we are,” Sabalenka said Saturday. “It’s a great thing, and she’s a great player. 

“Every match we’ve played before has been at a game at level and big fight. So, I’m really looking forward to it.”

Both Sabalenka, 22, of Minsk, Belarus, and Mertens, 24, from Leuven, Belgium, have enjoyed good 2020 seasons in spite of the five-month global pandemic lockdown of the WTA Tour. First, Sabalenka will be playing in her third WTA final of the year after winning titles at Doha in February and Ostrava last month. If she prevails over Mertens, Sabalenka would tie current World No. 2 Simona Halep of Romania for most titles won this season. Meanwhile, Mertens is into her second final since the WTA relaunch in August. She lost to Halep in the final at Prague on clay and hasn’t lifted a title trophy since Doha in 2019. As a consolation, Mertens has won the most WTA singles matches of anyone this season. She brings a win-loss record of 34-12 on the court at TipsArena Linz.

After Mertens’ semifinal win, she said of her victory over Alexandrova: “It was a tough one, especially in the first set, when she was serving unbelievably well. 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.”

As Sabalenka arrives for today’s final, she’s 9-1 in her last 10 hardcourt matches going back to her second-round loss at the US Open and has won eight straight since losing to Ons Jabeur in the third round at Roland Garros. Over the past year, she’s 8-4 against Top 30 players. Mertens is 8-2 in her last 10 on hard courts but 0-6 against Top 20 players.

After beating Krejcikova, Sabalenka said during her virtual media chat, “It wasn’t an easy match for me. [Barbora] played really well. I didn’t play my best, but I tried my best. So, I’m happy I could handle this [match] 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.”

After her victory Saturday, Mertens told Tennis TourTalk she’s very happy to be in today’s final, “definitely, because it’s the last tournament of the year.” The Belgian No. 1 also admits she’ll need a good game plan to beat Sabalenka.

“I like to play matches; I like to play tennis. That’s why I’ve played a lot after the [five-month] break. … I’m happy with my performance [this week]. I think under the circumstances I’ve managed to do well mentally.

“I just have an affection for the sport, I try to do my best every time. I try to win every time, although it’s not always possible.” 

As Mertens summed it up best, “A match isn’t over until the last point is played.”