Cirstea, Mertens Battle Weather, Reach Istanbul Final

Sorana Cirstea (photo: @TennisChampIst/Twitter)

ISTANBUL/WASHINGTON, April 25, 2021 (by Michael Dickens)

Top seed Elise Mertens battled her foe Veronika Kudermetova for a berth in the WTA 250-series TEB BNP Paribas Tennis Championship Istanbul singles final – and won 6-1, 6-4 – on Saturday afternoon. Then, she welcomed the Russian to her side about an hour later.

Frenemies, perhaps? The formidable duo representing Belgium and Russia teamed to win their doubles semifinal by beating Russian pair and fourth-seeded Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova and Anastasia Potapova, 6-3, 6-1, and later, Kudermetova was feted with a birthday cake to celebrate turning 24.

What it all means is this: the talented Belgian will play in two finals on Sunday. First, the World No. 17 Mertens will face unseeded Sorana Cirstea of Romania, ranked 67th, for the singles title. After suitable rest, she and Kudermetova will oppose No. 2 seeds Nao Hibino and Makoto Ninomiya, both of Japan, for the doubles crown.

First, Mertens stopped the nine-match clay winning streak of the No. 3 seed Kudermetova to reach her 10th career final and second of the year following her February title run at the Gippsland Trophy in Melbourne. The Russian has been unstoppable on clay, winning nine straight including the Volvo Car Open in Charleston, S.C. two weeks ago, before Mertens prevailed on a miserable, cloudy and damp day on the grounds of the Turkish Tennis Federation Tennis Center.

“It’s tough conditions, a tough match because it’s raining,” said a bundled up Mertens during her on-court, post-match interview. “I’m very happy I got the win. I’m happy I could close it in two sets.”

When Mertens was asked about the awkwardness of facing Kudermetova, her doubles partner this week, she took it in stride and said: “We’re both professionals. I think we can handle it. In a match, everyone wants to win. Now, we’re on the same side. That’s tennis, sometimes.”

Cirstea reaches fifth career final, first since 2019

Later, Cirstea rallied from a break down in the second set and defeated No. 85 Marta Kostyuk of Ukraine, 6-4, 6-4, to advance to her fifth career final and first since Tashkent in 2019.

As for Cirstea, her run to the final has included three straight-set wins (against Kateryna Kozlova, Potapova and Kostyuk) plus a victory by retirement (over Fiona Ferro) after winning the first set. Plus, Cirstea is 2-0 lifetime against Mertens, with previous wins coming in 2016 at the French Open and in 2018 at Doha.

“Of course, I’m very happy, the first final of the year [for me],” Cirstea said during her on-court interview after her semifinal win, her fourth this week on clay. “I’m glad it’s on clay on the first week. This gives me a lot of hope for what is coming. It’s tough conditions, but it tough conditions for everyone.

“Today was a very tough match; Marta’s been playing great. She’s in great shape. Of course, I’m happy with the win. Most importantly, I’m happy to play the final.”

Later, during a virtual interview with a trio of tennis journalists, including Tennis TourTalk, Cirstea admitted after her victory: “To be honest, I did not expect this. I was hoping to come here and play a few matches and not think about the result at all. It makes me happy to be in the final and the happiest is the way I’m playing. I think I’ve played quite solid, and I feel like on any day I can be a tough opponent against anyone and this gives me a lot of hope for what’s coming.”

Cirstea professed that clay’s not a surface she’s fond of, but she’s learning to like it, again. “It’s a bit funny. When I started on clay after Miami, I thought: ‘I really don’t like this surface anymore.’ It was a funny feeling,” she said. “Last year, during the lockdown, I practiced on hard courts, then I played two events on clay – Palermo and the French Open. They were very short for me. When I came back on clay, I thought ‘I don’t like this at all.’ Somehow, I managed to keep the good form I’ve had the last couple of months and added more variety to my game. I think also the confidence, the fact I’ve won quite a lot of matches this year plays a big role.”

When Tennis TourTalk asked Cirstea, whose win-loss record this week has improved to 10-5, how she has been coping with the Turkish weather – which has included hot and cold temperature swings, plus windy and damp conditions – she admitted: “I think in general I’m a strong person, meaning I don’t complain too much about the conditions. They are the same for everyone. From my point of view, I’ve always been good at adapting, whether it be a bad court or bad weather, different balls. I think this is one of my strengths. This week, we have to adapt. So many different conditions. I had to bring out every single day a strong mindset and just think of my goal, no matter the conditions.”

What does it mean for Cirstea to reach her first final of the season? “To be honest, I didn’t expect this. I came with my mind open,” she said. “For me, the lockdown game me quite a boost. It helped me to find my joy on the court, my game, my mind, again. I was hoping to come here and play a few matches and not think about the result at all. It makes me happy to be in the final and I think the happiest is the way I’ve been playing. Think I’ve played quite solid, and I feel like on any day, I can be a tough opponent against anyone and this gives a lot of hope for what’s coming.”

Finally, the subject of playing Mertens in Sunday’s final came up, when Cirstea was asked by a Belgian tennis journalist. She called Mertens “a very tough opponent.”

Cirstea said: “She’s an established Top 20 player for a while already. I have a lot of respect for her because I’ve seen the way she improved over the years. And I see her every week and she works really hard; she’s smart in everything she does. So, I think she deserves to be where she is.”