Mertens stuns Svitolina

  • Alix Ramsay
  • Ben Solomon

The Belgians are getting excited. It’s a phrase you don’t hear often. They are lovely people, the Belgians, and theirs is a grand country but as a race, they are not for excitability. Let’s face it, their national vegetable is the Brussels sprout – it hardly screams excitement to the world.
But, for the moment, the Belgians are loosening their stays and allowing themselves to get all of a fluster. Their Elise Martens is doing ever so well: she is through to the semifinals of Australian Open 2018 after absolutely sploshing Elina Svitolina 6-4 6-0.

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“I have no words; I don’t know what to say,” the excited Belgian Martens said. “I have so many mixed emotions. I gave it all today, I fought. I got a little stress at the end so I played, my game and it went well today.

“She’s a great mover, she’s a really strong player. She started well at the beginning of the year so I knew it was going to be tough. So I tried to play aggressive, make her move, come to the net a bit more – just tried to play aggressive on the court.”
She made it sound simple but, then again, she likes to keep it simple. As one pundit put it, her game plan is uncomplicated: see ball, hit ball. It seems to be working.

The polite term for Martens’ progress is ‘flying under the radar’. But journalists are seldom polite and in reality Mertens has been totally ignored for the past nine days by everyone other than her fellow Belgians.
The only time she has been called for a main press conference was after the second round – and that was only because she had beaten Australia’s very own Daria Gavrilova (and done so from 0-5 down in the first set). Mertens may have been in the hot seat but the presser was all about Dasha.

AO Analyst: How Mertens shocked Svitolina
All of that will change now, though. A new star has been discovered in the firmament and with the top of the women’s game in a constant state of flux at the moment (six women were chasing the world No.1 ranking as the tournament began), Mertens has as a good a chance of any to get her hands on the trophy here.

She trains at the Kim Clijsters academy (Clijsters has been in constant touch throughout the Open) and she is coached by her boyfriend Robbe Ceyssens, a man Clijsters thinks does not get nearly enough credit. Everything is kept in house, then; nice and quiet. But when Mertens steps onto the match court, there is nothing quiet about her ball striking or her willingness to attack from the back. It is almost Clijsters-esque.
All of this swept the 22-year-old world No.37 to a 5-2 lead in the first set. She served for the set and was broken on a double fault. Lack of big match experience can do that to anyone. She served for it again at 5-4 and this time, she got it right. She was giving a subdued and out-of-sorts Sviltolina a hiding and there was nothing the world No.4 could do about it.
At the end of that set, Svitolina marched off the court and towards the sanctuary of the bathroom. According to Sam Smith on Channel 7, the world No.4 was “off to collect her thoughts in the ladies’ bathroom”. She made it sound as if the Ukrainian had mislaid them like you would the car keys. “I’m sure I put them down here… maybe they are in my other handbag”.

26 Elise Mertens
14 Elina Svitolina

But whatever she was looking for, she could not find it. Mertens had scooped it up and hidden it in her own racquet bag. Svitolina’s scalp was soon to follow.
All that could stop Mertens was Mertens herself. When she tensed up, she became passive. And when that happened, she gave Svitolina a chance. This was the biggest test of her nerve: could she reach her first Grand Slam semifinal (she had never got beyond a third round anywhere before) and do it by beating a top five player for the first time in her life? No pressure, then, Elise.
Yes, our new heroine got nervous, but not nearly as tight as she had been trying to close out the match against Petra Martic in the previous round. No, on Tuesday, her belief would waver from time to time but it was only for a point here and there, not for a whole game. And as she pulled further ahead, the pulse rate dropped slightly.
A set and two breaks to the good, she was able to breathe a little more easily. At a set and three breaks up, the terrifying thought that she was just four points away from the semifinals did not seem quite so daunting. With one final backhand, she finished the job and took her place in the last four where second seed Caroline Wozniacki or Carla Suarez Navarro waits.
Now the Belgians are getting really excited.