HOBART, Australia (AP) — Belgian qualifier Elise Mertens' decision to forego singles qualifying for the Australian Open paid big dividends Saturday when she beat Monica Niculescu 6-3, 6-1 in the Hobart International final.
As the 21-year-old Mertens advanced through the Hobart field, including a win over top-seeded Kiki Bertens, she had a difficult decision to make: withdraw from the tournament and head to Melbourne for Open qualifying, or stay in the Tasmanian state capital and keep playing.
She decided to stay. So in addition to the trophy and first-place prize money of $32,000, her efforts will see her break into the top 100 in rankings, possibly as low as 81. She was 127th at the start of the Hobart event.
A previous Hobart winner in 2000 was Kim Clijsters, and Mertens took her inspiration from the fellow Belgian.
"She's really a role model for me — what she achieved was amazing," Mertens said of the former No. 1. "I hope I can be a little bit like her...I still have some years to go so I'll see where it ends."
A student of the Kim Clijsters Academy, Mertens recalls when she was a child watching the four-time Grand Slam singles champion Clijsters and fellow Belgian Justine Henin.
"Just watching them on TV and making such great shots and winning so many matches was incredible," Mertens said.
She even impressed herself with this week's performance — "I beat four top-100 players...I had a plan and it worked."
Mertens will still travel to Melbourne to play in the Australian Open doubles draw with American Louisa Chirico.
Mertens was playing in just her fourth WTA event and contesting her first final.
It was the third time in six years a qualifier has strung together eight consecutive victories to take the Hobart title. Mertens joined Mona Barthel (2012) and 2016 French Open champion Garbine Muguruza (2014) as players who won Hobart via the qualifying route.