One of just three top-eight seeds remaining in the women’s Australian Open draw, can Simona Halep reassert her authority over Elise Mertens after losing their last match to book a place in the quarterfinals?
Halep vs Mertens is live from Melbourne on Monday 27 January at 11am local/12am GMT
With the winner going on to face either powerful Anett Kontaveit or young Iga Swiatek, two good players but very inexperienced at this stage of a major, there is a big opportunity here for the winner of this fourth-round clash between Halep and Mertens to reach the Australian Open semifinals.
It would not be the first time for either player: Halep was a quarterfinalist in Melbourne in 2014-15 and reached the final in 2018, finishing runner-up to Caroline Wozniacki, while Mertens made her breakthrough run to the semifinals at the same tournament.
Halep is, of course, the more experienced at this level as she looks to make the quarterfinal of a major for the fourteenth time in her career. The French Open and Wimbledon champion, now reunited with coach Darren Cahill, had the misfortune of drawing Serena Williams in the round of 16 last year in Melbourne and bowed out in three sets, and when I saw Halep’s draw this year, I admit I thought that she would be lucky to make it through. Jennifer Brady, her first-round opponent, had been on a brilliant run in Brisbane and had pushed Halep hard in a previous meeting; and Halep’s potential third-round opponent Danielle Collins was a semifinalist at the Australian Open in 2019 and looked on superb form.
But it was the Romanian who came through the first-round clash with Brady, winning 7-6(5), 6-1 and going on to dominate British qualifier Harriet Dart 6-2, 6-4, while Collins went out to Yulia Putintseva – and Halep in turn put paid to the Kazakh’s campaign, taking just 71 minutes to win 6-1, 6-4. It was a judicious display of measured aggression from Halep against an opponent whose counterpunching can be maddening, as Halep hit 26 winners and 15 unforced errors and saved five of the seven break points she faced.
‘I expected this kind of match. I knew how she’s playing, but she played a little bit stronger with the forehand than I expected. I knew that I had to attack her serve, to serve well, because she’s hitting the return well.
‘I think I have improved in my serve. Also the return looks pretty good. I go to the net. I have some dropshots included in my game, so it’s a big step. I’m happy with my game.’
Halep does seem to be full of confidence at the moment, but she has also allowed her second- and third-round matches to get noticeably much tighter towards the end, which could be a concern as the pressure intensifies and the opponents get tougher.
Elise Mertens should be Halep’s most serious challenge so far. The Belgian suffered extremely one-sided defeats in their first two matches, which both came during the clay-court season in 2018, winning three games in both of them. But she got her revenge when she beat Halep 3-6, 6-4, 6-3 in the final of the Qatar Total Open last spring.
That was the fifth and biggest title of Mertens’s career so far as she scored a trio of top-10 wins in a row, beating Kiki Bertens and Angelique Kerber before ousting Halep, and somewhat compensated for her failure to defend her Australian Open semifinal points (she lost in the third round to Madison Keys last year). Mertens went on to make the round of 16 at Wimbledon (losing to Barbora Strycova) and the quarterfinals of the US Open (losing to Bianca Andreescu), although she did not face a single seeded player; she also made the semifinals of Osaka before losing to the eventual champion, Naomi Osaka.
Mertens suffered three-set defeats to lower-ranked players in the quarterfinals of both events she played in the run-up to the Australian Open, losing to Elena Rybakina in Shenzhen and Heather Watson in Hobart respectively, but after beating Danka Kovinic 6-2, 6-0 she avenged that loss to Watson in ruthless fashion, 6-3, 6-0 to reach the third round. Taking on CiCi Bellis, coming back from that dreadful wrist injury, Mertens dropped the second set in a tie-break but otherwise dominated for a 6-1, 6-7(5), 6-0 victory. That’s just 13 games dropped in three matches (seven of them in one set).
Can Halep avenge that defeat she suffered to the Belgian in Doha? That was a match the Romanian was dominating, leading by a set and a break before going off the boil and allowing Mertens back into it; the Belgian plays an aggressive game, but she doesn’t have the raw power to blow Halep off the court.
‘We have played many times, so it’s enough to know how she’s playing and what I have to do against her.
‘I will be ready for the match. And I have to fight. Even if she’s playing great, I will be there ready to play. She’s fights until the end, she never gives up. She has a good game, like she plays fast, close to the baseline.’
I like Halep’s resolve to be ready for the Belgian’s aggressive approach, and I don’t think the Romanian, forewarned, will repeat the mistake she made in Doha. This should be Halep’s toughest match of the fortnight so far and could see her drop a set, but it will be the fourth seed who comes through to the quarterfinals of the Australian Open for the fourth time.