Down But Never Out, Mertens Upsets Halep In Madrid

Elise Mertens (photo: @wta/Instagram)

MADRID/WASHINGTON, May 4, 2021 (by Michael Dickens)

Never count Elise Mertens out of a tennis match. She never does. Now Simona Halep knows that the Belgian doesn’t either.

On Tuesday at the Mutua Madrid Open, with the roof open to allow the sunny skies of the Spanish capital city to blanket Manolo Santana Stadium on a warm, 17º Celsius afternoon, the World No. 16 from Belgium trailed by a break in both the second and third sets against the World No. 3 Halep from Romania. Somehow, some way, the 13th seed Mertens remained resilient and strong, and after two hours and 34-minutes of physical and entertaining tennis, it was the Belgian No. 1 who pulled out a well-deserved 4-6, 7-5, 7-5 victory to advance to Wednesday’s quarterfinal round against World No. 7 Aryna Sabalenka, who easily advanced over 33rd-ranked American Jessica Pegula, 6-1, 6-2.

“It was definitely a tough match, a close one. I just tried to stay on the court as long as possible and I was mentally hanging tough,” Mertens told Tennis TourTalk during a virtual interview that was conducted in English, Flemish and French after her 20th victory of the season in 25 matches, which lifted her to her first Madrid quarterfinal. “I made [Simona] play a lot of rallies. She made me play a lot of rallies. So, you know, it was holding serve at the end – [winning] the second match point – overall, I was overall with my performance.”

Halep arrived this week in Madrid in possession of nine clay titles – two of them won in Madrid (in 2016 and 2017) and her 2018 run at Roland Garros. She entered her third-round match with a 4-1 career head-to-head win-loss record against Mertens, never having lost to the Belgian on clay. Her most recent wins came last year at the Australian Open and in the final at Prague.

“I knew that it’s difficult because she’s all the time going inside the court and she stays at the baseline and like to hit all the balls,” Halep said in describing Mertens’ on-court demeanor before the match. “It’s going to be tough.”

Indeed, tough it was. There were 211 points played between the two and, at the end, only seven points separated the two with Mertens outpointing Halep 109-102. There were also 15 breaks of serve with Mertens converting eight of 15 chances and Halep seven of 10. Mertens hit 23 winners to 35 unforced errors while Halep put out higher numbers – 40 winners to 48 unforced errors. The two combined for 19 double faults, too (nine against Mertens and 10 against Halep).

“[Elise] played really well and deserved to win,” Halep said during her virtual press conference afterward. The loss dropped her record against Top 20 foes this year to 2-3. “She was stronger in the end.

“I cannot say I played bad but I made some important mistakes. Sometimes, it’s just a little bit and the match goes the other way.

“I played some good matches, some good tennis. I will just try to recover from this match and look forward to the next event.”

When the match ended and after the two competitors had congratulated each other, Mertens took a moment to sit down at her bench and reflect, letting the victory sink in. When Tennis TourTalk asked her to share what was on her mind at that moment, she expressed: “It’s the end of the match and it was a close one that could have gone either way. I was definitely happy that I won and I was just a little bit relieved that it’s over and it was in my favor. I was just taking it all in.”

Ruud improves to 7-2 on European clay

No. 22 Casper Ruud improved to 7-2 on clay this spring with his 6-1, 6-4 upset of No. 15 seed Felix Auger-Aliassime of Canada, winning on his fifth match-point opportunity, in one hour and 31 minutes on Arantxa Sanchez Vicario Stadium on Tuesday. The Norwegian (13-6 overall) has reached four straight ATP Tour quarterfinals (or better) this season – including back-to-back semifinal runs in Monte-Carlo and Munich – and he’s into the second round against lucky loser Yoshihito Nishioka of Japan, a late replacement for Estoril Open finalist Cameron Norrie (out with foot injury), who advanced 6-2, 6-4 over Filip Krajinovic of Serbia. The loss dropped the the World No. 20 Auger-Aliassime’s win-loss record to 12-8.

“I am very happy with the way I played,” Ruud said, during a post-match interview. “I will take all the Masters 1000 wins I can get. I played solid and steady today. Madrid is a little bit different to other clay-court events because of the high bounces and altitude. I hit with good length and I served unbelievably well today. I have been working a lot on my serve recently, so it’s nice to see it’s coming together a little bit. I hope I can keep my level high.”

Can Ruud make another deep run this week in Madrid? Maybe.

“I think that I have proved myself in Rome [last year] and in Monte-Carlo that I can play at a high level,” Ruud said. “To reach the semifinals in Madrid, I will have to play well again. I have a lot of motivation to play well throughout the clay-court season.”

Nishikori goes the distance to breat Khachanov

No. 43 Kei Nishikori improved to 3-1 on clay and 9-8 overall with his 6-7 (6), 6-2, 6-2 victory over No. 23 Karen Khachanov of Russia on Manolo Santana Stadium. He recovered from missing two set-point opportunities in the first set, but recovered nicely to win in two hours and 18 minutes.

Nishikori hit 24 winners to 26 unforced errors while Khachanov’s numbers were 20 winners and 29 unforced errors. Nishikori, who converted six of seven break-point chances – including two of two in the final set – outpointed his opponent 96-85 to move into the second round against 2018 Madrid champion and current No. 5 seed Alexander Zverev of Germany.

“I was feeling much better after the first set,” Nishikori told Tennis TourTalk during a virtual interview after his win. “I think I was a little bit tight and a little too conservative maybe. I think I could have been a little more aggressive. So, I tried to step in a little bit more than the first set. Then everything started working well.”

Around the Caja Mágica


• World No. 4 and third seed Dominic Thiem of Austria needed just 58 minutes to beat No. 91 Marcos Giron of the United States, 6-1, 6-3, to advance to the third round against No. 24 Alex de Minaur of Australia, in his first match since losing in the first round at Dubai in mid March.

De Minaur eliminated No. 54 Lloyd Harris of South Africa, 6-2, 3-0, retired, after just 43 minutes. Harris retired with a back injury.

Thiem, who has won nine of his last 10 matches on clay, hit 24 winners, made just 14 unforced errors and faced no break points. Meanwhile, Giron mustered just seven winners against 16 unforced errors.  He outpointed his opponent 53-32.

“No, there was no anxiety, but definitely I was uncertain how things would be going,” said Thiem during his virtual press conference after his sixth win of the season in 10 matches. “The game worked very well in my last days of practice. I was always practicing on the outside courts, which are faster and smaller. I was just not sure it would be in a match on the big center court. There were some things I think made it a little bit easier of a match after such a long time, especially the conditions in Madrid, which are great for me.

“[I have] amazing memories on this court, where I have already played some of the best matches of my career. So, I think things worked out quite well tonight.”

• No. 14 seed Jannik Sinner of Italy advanced over No. 55 Guido Pella of Argentina, who retired in the ninth game of the second with a leg injury. Sinner advanced 6-4, 4-4, retired, and will face 76th-ranked qualifier Alexei Popyrin of Australia, who beat Munich finalist Jan-Lennard Struff of Germany, ranked 40th, 6-3, 7-6 (4).

“Obviously, it’s quite a good feeling, to win my first-round match,” Sinner told Tennis TourTalk during a post-match virtual interview. “It’s not easy playing against Guido because he’s lefty. I never practiced with him before, never played against him before, so you never know what to expect. So, was trying to keep focused on what I had to do. Unfortunately for Guido, you never want to win like this. … I wish him good luck; he’s a really nice guy.

• World No. 7 and sixth seed Andrey Rublev rallied from a set down against 58th-ranked American Tommy Paul to win 6-7 (5), 6-3, 6-4, and move into the third round. The Russian, who leads the ATP Tour win 27 victories this season, won 70 percent (47 of 67) of his first-serve points, saved five of eight break points, broke Paul five times in 10 opportunities and outpointed his opponent 111-100.

“It’s important to win when you’re not [playing] your [best] game and things are not going well,” Rublev said during an on-court interview following his match. “So, it’s really important to win this match to have more confidence. I’m happy that I turned it around.”

Next, Rublev will face either No. 39 John Isner of the United States or No. 9 seed Roberto Bautista Agut, who went the distance to beat 104th-ranked Italian qualifier Marco Cecchinato, 6-2, 6-7 (3), 7-5.

• No. 8 seed Matteo Berrettini beat No. 28 Fabio Fognini, 6-3, 6-4 in an hour and 21 minutes in an all-Italian battle to reach the third round against either Spain’s Albert Ramos-Vinolas or Federico Delbonis of Argentina. Berrettini hit five aces and won 85 percent (33 of 39) of his first-serve points. He did not face any break points and outpointed Fognini 68-51.

“I felt in control but also put a lot of effort and energy into serving like that,” Berrettini said during his virtual press conference. “It’s not something that comes really easily. I have to try really hard. When [my serve] is working like it did today, I feel really confident, but I also know one game can change the whole match.”

• World No. 14 Denis Shapovalov of Canada was eliminated by No. 44 Alexander Bublik of Kazakhstan, 6-4, 5-7, 6-4, in a second-round match. Although the 11th seed Shapovalov hit 42 winners, he also committed 40 unforced errors and 14 double faults on his serve. His numbers towered over Bublik’s 22 winners and 31 unforced errors, but it was Bublik who outpointed Shapovalov 112-104 to garner his 18th victory of the season, which advanced him to the third round against either No. 7 seed Diego Schwartzman of Argentina or Russia’s No. 27 Aslan Karatsev.

• No. 42 John Millman of Australia saved three match points en route to his 5-7, 7-6 (7), 6-3 win over No. 12 Hubert Hurkacz of Poland, in two hours and 22 minutes. He advanced to face Great Britain’s Dan Evans, ranked 26th, a Monday winner against France’s No. 51 Jeremy Chardy.

• Spain’s 49th-ranked Alejandro Davidovich Fokina won a battle of tie-break sets with No. 85 Pierre-Hugues Herbert of France in their first career meeting and came out ahead at the end, 6-7 (5), 7-6 (4), 7-6 (4). The 49th-ranked Davidovich Fokina won 71 percent of his service points (82 of 115) and outpointed the No. 85 Herbert 131-119 to advance against World No. 3 and second seed Daniil Medvedev of Russia.

• No. 35 Benoit Paire of France fired 14 aces to beat BMW Open champion Nikolaz Basilashvili, ranked 31st, 6-4, 7-5 in 73 minutes. The victory advanced the mercurial Paire to the second round against World No. 5 Stefanos Tsitsipas, who comes in as Monte-Carlo champion and Barcelona finalist and is seeded fourth in Madrid.

• Two days after winning the Millennium Estoril Open, champion Albert Ramos-Vinolas adjusted nicely to the Madrid altitude and beat No. 30 Taylor Fritz of the United States 7-5, 5-7, 6-4 in two hours and 29 minutes to advance against Argentina’s Federico Delbonis, who took out 10th seed Pablo Carreño Busta of Spain Monday night. The 37th-ranked Ramos-Vinolas leads the ATP Tour with 17 tour-level wins on clay this season an Delbonis is second with 10.


• World No. 7 Aryna Sabalenka of Belarus dominated No. 33 Jessica Pegula of the United States in all facets as the 6-1, 6-2 score of her 53-minute third-round victory suggests. The fifth-seeded Belarusian calmly and confidently set up match point with her seventh ace and closed out the win with her eighth ace in one of the quickest matches of the tournament to advance against World No. 16 and 13th seed Elise Mertens.

Sabalenka hit 25 winners to 13 unforced errors and broke Pegula four times in five tries and outpointed the American 55-32. Pegula was limited to just nine winners and committed 13 unforced errors. She expressed satisfaction with the level of her play during her on-court, post-match interview: “I’m really happy with the level today on the court. [Jessica] is a tough opponent. I’m happy I could come up to her level and that I could play that good.”

Looking ahead to her match with Mertens, a friend off of the court but a competitor on it, Sabalenka said: “It’s tennis and you never know what can happen. What I can promise you is that I will be there and fight for every point and do my best.”

• No. 41 Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova of Russia upset World No. 14 and 11th seed Jennifer Brady of the United States, 7-5, 6-7 (8), 6-3, in two hours and 44 minutes to reach the quarterfinal round against No. 20 Karolina Muchova of the Czech Republic.

Pavlyuchenkova hit 40 winners to overcome 31 unforced errors and broke Brady six times in 12 tries. Although Brady broke Pavlyuchenkova four times during the match and saved a match point in the second set tie break, it was the Russian who thought her way through the struggle of closing out the match and won on her second match-point opportunity, about 50 minutes after her first match point came and went. The victory, her third in a row, improved Pavlyuchenkova’s win-loss record to 8-8.

“I’ve been through a lot of difficult challenges this year,” Pavlyuchenkova told Tennis TourTalk during a virtual interview after her win against Brady. “The only thing that keeps me going and motivates me is I want to win so badly every match I play. That’s what we play for.”

• Unseeded No. 20 Karolina Muchova of the Czech Republic beat World No. 19 and 16th seed Maria Sakkari of Greece, 6-0, 6-7 (9), 7-5, in two hours and 35 minutes on her fourth match point to reach her first WTA 1000 quarterfinal.

Muchova overcame 43 unforced errors by hitting 21 winners and breaking Sakkari eight times in 15 tries and outpointing her opponent 109-95. Sakkari hit 27 winners but committed 55 unforced errors. The Czech had match points during the second set, at 6-5 and 7-6 in a tie break that Sakkari ultimately won. It was nearly an hour later – and 10 minutes before midnight – before Muchova finally found a way to win.

Tennis TourTalk asked Muchova what it meant to her to be able to pull out a victory in the manner in which she did. She said: “I would have actually appreciated playing just two sets, but I’m happy I won a tough match. It’s good for my confidence, for the next match. I just actually look forward to resting a bit. I have a match tomorrow.”

Indeed, all four of the women’s quarterfinals are scheduled to be played on Wednesday and Muchova and Pavlyuchenkova are scheduled to play not before 3 p.m. on Arantxa Sanchez Vicario Stadium.

Wednesday’s Mutua Madrid order of play

What they’re saying

Denis Shapovalov after his loss to Alexander Bublik, in which he committed 14 double faults: “I started on the same level as the other day, so it’s not so much of my game not working. It’s more mental. Throwing in five doubles in one game, it’s not like I don’t know how to serve. It’s completely mental.”

What they’re telling Tennis TourTalk

Simona Halep on the physicality of her match against Elise Mertens: “I think my serve was bad today. She dominated the return. It was really tough to push her a little more back. I think she was very solid today – she was moving great and hit the ball good. So, I think it was a good match.”

Jannik Sinner on his career-high ranking of No. 18 and whether he feels he’s meeting or exceeding his expectations for this season: “You know, a ranking is a number at the end of the day. I’m there where I am right now, but the road is long. I know that I have to improve pretty much everything. I have a great team behind me that’s pushing me. I’m excited to work hard day after day and see what’s coming.”