Halep hunts down Mertens in quarterfinal quest

  • Alex Sharp

World No.3 Simona Halep displayed her full all-court artillery to dismiss Elise Mertens 6-4 6-4 to book her ticket into the Australian Open quarterfinals for a fourth time.
 
The two-time Grand Slam champion won six games in a row in the heart of the contest to wrestle away the initiative from the 16th seed and banished the nerves to complete an impressive triumph.
 
The 2018 finalist at Melbourne Park will meet No.28 seed Anett Kontaveit in the last eight.

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“It’s a great performance by me to play the quarterfinals again, it’s really nice to enjoy tennis here in Australia. I’m really happy to go through,” said the 28-year-old, relieved at not letting Mertens achieve another painful comeback.

“Against her last year in Doha, I was leading by a set and 4-2 and I lost the match. I had in my head she came back in that match, and I have just to pay attention on every ball, not giving up at all, because she can come back strong.
 
“I must admit I got a little nervous at 4-3 (second set), but I was strong enough to finish the match.

“I feel like I played a better match than all the matches since I'm here. I feel happy about that, and I'm trying just to stay focused. I like how I feel.”

A cat-and-mouse rally to start the match set the tone for a top-quality contest, with the Belgian chasing down Halep’s angled drop shot.
 
At 1-1 Mertens, semifinalist on debut in 2018, fended off three break points with a scorching backhand down the line and pinging a lob to evade Halep’s reach. The Romanian converted the fourth chance, an inside-out forehand sealing the deal.
 
The doubles prowess of US Open doubles champion Mertens was evident, razor sharp reactions at the net enabled the 24-year-old to restore scoreboard parity for 3-3 at Rod Laver Arena.
 
No.4 seed Halep was producing some scintillating shot-making and retrieved a Mertens smash to launch a cross-court forehand pass. A couple of break points went begging, but it was a taste of what was to come.
 
Locked at four apiece, Halep connected with a series of fierce groundstrokes to find the bullseye, taking the opener with a gutsy hold.

The reigning Wimbledon champion clinched a fourth successive game with powerful play and then consolidated the break for 2-0 with a phenomenal backhand passing shot at full stretch.
 
Halep was well and truly in the zone, but was wary of Mertens’ resistance. Last February the Belgian roared back from a set and break deficit in the Doha final against the Romanian.
 
“I had to calm down, when I get a little bit nervous I get crazy on court,” continued Halep. 

“I had to stay cool, to get the energy from my box. I couldn’t think of going behind.”

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Elise Mertens and Simona Halep shake hands after their match

A piercing backhand return winner from Mertens helped erase one break for 1-3, before the world No.17 levelled at 4-4 by punishing the increasingly short ball.
 
Mertens managed to dig out a stunning backhand volley from the tip of her trainers, for a 21st success at net, managing to keep saving break points surging forward.
 
However, the No.4 seed converted a fifth opportunity with incredible scrambling and served out the last eight spot to love.

Halep knows how to navigate the home stretch of a major and is making sure she is as relaxed as possible in preparation.
 
“I’m listening to music, I can say it’s a superstition, we have the same three songs like we had at Wimbledon. We repeat that, hopefully it works, you never know,” revealed the champion at SW19 last July, ahead of some retail therapy.
 
“I go for a walk, because I like to relax myself in the city, to see people. I will go to buy myself something to get motivated for the next one. Pretty simple, nothing special.”