Doubles partners, Aryna Sabalenka and Elise Mertens go head-to-head on Friday, with the winner advancing to the semi-finals of the WTA Elite Trophy Zhuhai.
*Geo-restrictions apply. Streams available to customers with an active balance
Making her second appearance in Zhuhai, Sabalenka is looking to reach the semi-finals for the first time, having failed to cross the round-robin phase in her tournament debut last season, when she defeated Ashleigh Barty but lost to Caroline Garcia.
She set about that quest with a 6-3 6-4 victory over Maria Sakkari in the opening match of the Rose Group on Tuesday, scoring late breaks in each set to take down the Greek after an hour and 20 minutes.
Sabalenka served at only 46% for the match, winning 86% of points on her first serve, but she also did a good job of protecting her second serve, claiming the point 61% of the time, and saving all five break points she faced. She converted two of the six break points she created, and was particularly severe on the Sakkari second serve, winning 11 of 15 points.
While some of Sabalenka’s serving numbers were good, she will want to tidy up that shot moving forward, as she hit eight double faults, as against six aces.
China has been very kind to Sabalenka this season, with her two titles- Shenzhen and Wuhan- coming in the country. The season promised a lot more when she opened with that title run in Shenzhen, carrying on from her strong finish to the previous season, but she couldn’t quite hit the heights of 2018 afterwards, making just one final (San Jose) and two semi-finals (St. Petersburg and Strasbourg) in her next 20 tournaments.
Just as the season threatened to peter out, Sabalenka surged to life again in Wuhan, where she successfully defended her title following marquee wins over Kiki Bertens and Ashleigh Barty, as well as Alison Riske in the final.
Can she reproduce that sort of form this week as she continues her search for her third title of the season, and fifth of her career?
Her next opponent, Elise Mertens is seeking her second title of the season, following her success in Doha earlier in the campaign. That Doha triumph, which featured wins over Kiki Bertens, Angelique Kerber and Simona Halep remains the biggest title of her career.
Mertens has made only one other semi-final this year, in Osaka, but she did contest the quarter finals of the US Open (lost to Bianca Andreescu), and other quarter finals in Sydney, Rabat, Mallorca. The Belgian also reached the fourth round at Wimbledon (lost to Barbora Strycova), and made the third round of the other two majors.
Mertens arrived Zhuhai with a modest 3-3 record, and hadn’t won consecutive matches in any of her last three tournaments- can she halt that streak when she plays Sabalenka on Friday? She had a rollercoaster beginning to the tournament, recovering from a second-set wobble to beat Maria Sakkari 6-2 3-6 6-1 in an hour and 44 minutes.
“Just went a little bit up-and-down, my level,” Mertens said afterwards. “I tried too much, I think, in the second set. She played better, so all credit to her. In the third set I just tried to step up my game a little bit, a little bit more aggressive, make some balls, just to try to build a point and then go for it.”
Like her next opponent, Mertens is also looking to cross the round-robin phase for the first time after falling short last season. She defeated Anett Kontaveit, but fell to Julia Goerges.
She owns a 2-1 lead over Sabalenka, winning on Lugano and Montreal last year, when she saved a match point en route a 2-6 7-6 6-0 victory, while Sabalenka’s only win was a hard-fought 7-5 2-6 7-6 victory in Eastbourne, also last year.
Sabalenka is the natural aggressor, and if she finds her range, the Belarusian can power through Mertens, but Mertens is adept at absorbing that power and counterpunching effectively. The Belgian will also get on the front foot when she has the opportunity. There’s plenty at stake for the doubles partners on Friday- one of them will proceed to the last four at the WTA Elite Trophy Zhuhai.
Aryna Sabalenka vs Elise Mertens is live from Zhuhai on Friday, 25 October from 7:00pm local time/ 12:00pm BST