Women's singles third round
Aryna Sabalenka will face Olympic champion Belinda Bencic for her first Australian Open quarterfinal after sounding an ominous warning to the field with her defeat of Elise Mertens on Saturday.
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A near-flawless start and finish bookended the tight spot she managed to scrap herself out of early in the second set against her former Australian Open-winning doubles partner, 6-2 6-3.
Two years ago at Melbourne Park, Sabalenka and Mertens combined to bag a second major doubles trophy, their fifth as a team.
It brought an end to the successful tandem as Sabalenka opted to focus her energies more on her singles.
While yet to break through that major semifinal barrier in singles, the fifth seed has re-established herself after a rough year ironing out her wildly erratic serve.
She entered this showdown without having conceded a set in her first six matches of the year, including a title in Adelaide leading in, and owned a 4-2 record against her former doubles partner.
While Mertens had not defeated a top-10 opponent since April 2021, she rebounded from the brink to deny Garbine Muguruza in the opening round.
The Belgian's sole singles semifinal at a major came at the Australian Open five years ago and while she lacked Sabalenka's firepower, Mertens' consistency and retrieving aptitude posed a potentially frustrating foil.
Story of the match
Tired of missing at crucial moments on the biggest matches, Sabalenka had worked hard on adding more margin for error to her explosive shots in the past year.
She cut a much calmer figure on court these days, not that the opening set gave her much cause for concern.
Showing off her variety, a touch volley secured a 5-2 lead and she managed a second break to take the set after 26 minutes.
Sabalenka's 12 winners to just four unforced errors were a snapshot of a near perfect start before a fired-up Mertens finally wedged her foot in the door at 0-2 down in the second set.
The Belgian broke for the first time when her opponent sent an overhead flying wide and levelled after she finally ended a 12-minute, seven-deuce game on serve.
Her cries of "allez" made way for a bellow of "c'mon" and the Rod Laver Arena crowd egged her on for more, only for Sabalenka to close that door firmly shut at the 75-minute mark.
The fifth seed hasn't abandoned her doubles career entirely, and had spoken of how it still played its part in helping rectify that once problematic serve.
It continued to work wonders for her volleys too as she claimed 16 of 19 points at net on Saturday.
While Sabalenka's 20 unforced errors were eight more than Mertens', her 32 winners were almost three times as many as the Belgian and there was nothing too problematic about her first serve as she won 75 per cent of points off that delivery, to Mertens' 54 per cent.
What it means for Sabalenka
After the departure of second seed Ons Jabeur, Sabalenka, fourth seed Caroline Garcia and 12th seed Bencic are the only top-16 seeds left in the bottom half.
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One of them will depart in the fourth round when Sabalenka meets the Swiss Olympic champion, Bencic, for a place in her maiden Australian Open quarterfinal.
"Finally I understand what everyone was looking for and asking for," Sabalenka said.
"I need to be a little bit boring on court. I mean, it's still about a lot of positive emotions for me, but I'm trying to stay away from negative and just fight for every point.
"I think, like, there was few moments when I was about to throw my racquet or scream something, and because I hold myself really strong in (those) moments, after that right now I feel like it's a little bit more natural."
What's next for Mertens?
Mertens' run of three straight Australian Open fourth round appearances came to an end, her record in Grand Slam third rounds slipping to 12-8 following her sixth straight defeat to Sabalenka.
"It's really tough to play against her. She's a great player, an unbelievable fighter," Sabalenka said. "I knew it was going to be tough.
"Super happy I was able to stay focused from the beginning to the end, so I could win this match, but she's an amazing player."
The 27-year-old Mertens' sole on-court focus now shifts to the doubles, where seeded fourth, she and Australian Storm Sanders had a second-round date with former champions Timea Babos and Kristina Mladenovic.