In discussions of the women’s event at Australian Open 2021, much of the focus has centred on the bottom half of the draw.
This was the half containing nine Grand Slam champions. At the start of the tournament, one of those nine – Bianca Andreescu – made a highly-anticipated comeback. As the matches and rounds unfolded, it was the half where six women progressed to set up three blockbuster matches headlining the Day 7 schedule, Naomi Osaka saving match points to deny Garbine Muguruza, Serena Williams surviving a bruising clash with Aryna Sabalenka, and Simona Halep avenging her French Open loss to Iga Swiatek.
At the same time, several threats have progressed in the top half with comparatively little fanfare. And with No.1 seed Ash Barty the only player remaining in that half with a Grand Slam title to her name, opportunity exists for a quartet of players well positioned to achieve great things.
Elise Mertens, Jennifer Brady, Karolina Muchova and Donna Vekic all remain alive in the tournament. All have Grand Slam pedigree, with each having reached at least the quarterfinal stage of a major. All are clustered around a similar ranking and age bracket.
And three of them – Mertens, Brady and Muchova – have arrived in the second week without dropping a set.
Two of them are guaranteed to progress further because they face the other two; Mertens plays Muchova, while Brady takes on Vekic.
Brady has been perhaps the most impressive of the bunch, surrendering a total of just 11 games in her first three rounds. The American, a US Open semifinalist last year, dismantled Kaja Juvan in the third round to improve her 2021 win-loss record to 6-2.
“I think I'm coming out there, I have a mission, and I'm on the mission,” said the American, who also appeared in the Australian Open fourth round back in 2017. “I'm playing pretty solid tennis, not really giving away too many free points. I think that's key.”
Solid tennis may be an understatement, given the level Brady has attained in the past six months.
We saw it in North America last year, when the 25-year-old won the WTA Lexington title and then advanced to the semifinals at Flushing Meadows, without dropping a set in any of those match wins.
Her eventual loss to Naomi Osaka in the last four in New York was widely acclaimed as one of the highest-quality women’s Grand Slam matches in recent history.
Said Osaka herself: “My semis against Brady was probably like top two matches I've played in my life.”
And still it took her three sets to see off the world No.24.
Vekic has a tough task ahead when she comes face-to-face with Brady’s barrage, a mixture of vicious kick serves and heavy forehands lashed with speed and spin.
But the Croatian has weapons of her own – especially the serve – and more experience at the top level, having played regularly in the main draw at Slams for four years longer than Brady, who joined the tour later after coming through the US college tennis system.
Vekic, a US Open quarterfinalist in 2019 who has now reached the second week at all four Grand Slam tournaments, has been forced to battle hard in her matches so far at AO 2021.
She even saved a match point in an impressive triumph over giant-killer Kaia Kanepi in round three.
“It might sound a bit weird because I'm in the second week, but I think I'm still far from my best tennis, so hopefully I can keep improving,” said Vekic, the 28th seed.
As she clawed her way to victory on Saturday over Kanepi in two hours and 32 minutes, Mertens needed just 62 minutes to swat Belinda Bencic aside.
This was a statement performance from the 16th-ranked Belgian, given Bencic’s status as a former world No.4 and semifinalist at the 2019 US Open.
Mertens is simply flying, undefeated in seven outings in 2021 after winning last week’s WTA Gippsland Trophy. She has now won 30 of her past 37 matches dating back to August last year, and, as ausopen.com reported on Saturday, she had advanced to the second week at five of her past six Slams.
An Australian Open 2018 semifinalist, Mertens next faces the stylish Muchova, who beat former world No.1 Karolina Pliskova in straight sets to reach the last 16 at Melbourne Park for the first time.
Already a Wimbledon quarterfinalist (2019) and a fourth-round finisher at last year’s US Open, Muchova’s athleticism, stroke production and variety make her one of the more watchable rising stars on tour.
With this approach matched up against Mertens’ relentless accuracy, consistency and power, it sets the stage for a fantastic contrast of styles.
And the winner may get a shot at Barty in the quarterfinals.
“It's always nice to be in the second week of the Grand Slam,” said Muchova, the world No.27.
“I know Elise. I played her not so far ago in Ostrava last year (Muchova lost 6-4 6-2). She's a very good player.
“It's going to be tough, tough match.”
Should these women continue their progression at Melbourne Park, they won’t be able to avoid the spotlight much longer.