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By Richard Pagliaro | Tuesday, May 4, 2021

 
Elise Mertens

Elise Mertens beat two-time champion Simona Halep for the first time on clay, 4-6, 7-5, 7-5 to reach the Mutua Madrid Open quarterfinals where she'll face doubles partner Aryna Sabalenka.

Photo credit: Mateo Villalba/Mutua Madrid Open

Swiping at the red clay three times after a forehand error, Simona Halep looked like a woman trying to rattle miscues free from her racquet.

Elise Mertens applied dynamic drives and exploited some sloppy stretches from the two-time champion to topple Halep 4-6, 7-5, 7-5 and reach the Mutua Madrid Open quarterfinals for the first time.

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Mertens exploited 10 double faults from Halep twice rallying from a break down in the decider in a gritty win.

"She played really well, and she definitely deserved to win because she was stronger in the end," Halep said. "I cannot say I played bad, but I did some mistakes, important mistakes. You know, sometimes it's just a little bit and the match is going away."

The Belgian battled back from 1-3 down in the final set, converting eight of her 15 break-point chances to beat the 2018 French Open champion for the first time in four clay-court meetings.

"I think my serve was bad today. She could dominate the return," Halep said. "Then was really tough to get her, to push her a little bit more back.

"I think she was very solid today. She was moving great, and also, she hit the ball good. So I think it was a good match."




Halep joins 2019 champion Kiki Bertens in falling from the field leaving three-time champion Petra Kvitova, who plays world No. 1 Ash Barty tomorrow, as the lone former champion still standing.

For a set and a half, Halep was in control, but then lost some confidence in her second serve and a bit of faith in her drives as Mertens turned the match around playing from behind for most of the final set.

The 13th-seeded Belgian scored 20th victory of the season and will face a familiar face—doubles partner Aryna Sabalenka—for a semifinal spot.

Commanding the center of the court, Sabalenka smacked eight aces and won 24 of 28 first-serve points sweeping American Jessica Pegula 6-1, 6-2 in 52 minutes. Sabalenka, who beat Halep en route to the Stuttgart final, raised her 2021 record to 21-6 charging into her fifth quarterfinal of the season.

The owner of nine career WTA titles, Sabalenka is seeking her first career clay crown and will have to beat her buddy to do it. The pair partnered to win the Australian Open doubles championship earlier this season and previously paired to win the 2019 US Open.

Novak Djokovic
Photo credit: Angel Martinez

Sabalenka says there are no surprises between them.

"On the court we are opponents and it's different; off the court we are friends," Sabalenka told Tennis Channel's Prakash Amritraj. "She's a great player. I know her a little bit and she knows me. It will be an interesting match and I'm looking forward to this one."

The third-seeded Halep was on track for her second straight-sets win over Mertens in Madrid in the last three years.

Holding a one set, one break lead at 4-3 in the second, Halep could see the finish line, but Mertens made sure she didn't cross it. Mertens broke back in the eighth game and then found a higher gear.

The world No. 16 won three of the next four games at love snatching the second set and forcing the third.

The Wimbledon winner, who was 3-0 in three-setters this season, broke for a 3-1 lead and then broke again for 4-3. Mertens, who competed with more calm and struck with more conviction, used her two-hander to good effect breaking right back in the eighth game.

The Belgian banged an ace down the middle holding for 5-4.

Tennis Express

Showing signs of stress Halep committed a couple of forehand errors and missed a backhand down the line for double match point.

The two-time Grand Slam champion showed guts pasting the sideline with a forehand to save the first match point.

On the second, a tight Halep barely squeezed a second serve over net then shoveled a backhand into the middle of the net as Mertens moved on in two hours, 34 minutes.

 

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