HIGHLIGHTS: Mertens vs. Putintseva in San Jose

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What began as a route finished as a cliffhanger. This afternoon at the Mubadala Silicon Valley Classic, in a quarterfinal match that lasted five minutes short of two hours, first-seeded Elise Mertens beat eighth-seeded Yulia Putintseva, 6-3, 7-6 (8). Mertens’ victory was an effort at times dominant, but also dramatic, most notably when the 25-year-old Belgian fought off two set points in the tie-break. “Today was definitely a mental game,” said Mertens.

To witness Mertens in full glory is to grasp the argument for the highly flat drive, her shots struck hard and deep, pinning the opponent into highly defensive positions. Early on, Mertens deployed her arsenal superbly, dismissing one Putintseva shot after another. Currently ranked No. 17, Mertens indeed appeared twice as good as the 35th-ranked Putintseva, taking the first four games. Engaged by crossword puzzles in her spare time, Mertens early on swiftly inked every answer, across and down, her concussive drives and command of space reminiscent of another line drive hitter, recent Wimbledon finalist Karolina Pliskova.

But for this crisp and brisk playing style to work, one dimension must be out of the picture: doubt. With little margin in the shape of the swing or direction of the shot, the striker has no other choice than complete technical and emotional liberation. And the minute Putintseva began to pry her way into Mertens’ mind, the texture of the match changed dramatically. With Mertens serving at 4-0, Putintseva broke, fought off a break point at 1-4 and was no longer likely to be blown off the court. Though Mertens in time closed out the set, the big early lead she’d accumulated meant little as the second set began.

Putintseva is enigmatic. She has a sharp tennis mind. Her backhand is rock-solid. The forehand is mercurial, but at times she manages it well enough and can rattle off surprising placements. Then there’s her frequent use of the drop shot, coupled often with a deadly lob. And yet, for all that racquet-toting pragmatism, there is also a volatile side, upset surfacing in a scream, a tossed frame, anger aimed at her coach.

Seeking her second singles crown of the year, Mertens is now 26-12 in 2021.

Seeking her second singles crown of the year, Mertens is now 26-12 in 2021.

In contrast, Mertens is usually composed, an asset that can make her quite effective when in control. But as the second set rolled on, it wasn’t certain who was gaining momentum. It was also clear that Mertens was nervous, manifested in her shots intermittently losing sting. Mertens broke at 1-all and surrendered the next game. At 4-all, Putintseva was broken again. But with Mertens two points away from victory at 5-4, 30-all, Putintseva took advantage of her opponent’s passivity. Putintseva carved two fine slice backhands, lofted a two-hander high and deep, then stepped into the court to blister an untouchable down-the-line forehand. One point later, the set was levelled. “She’s tough,” said Mertens. “She’s really a fighter.”

The tie-break mirrored the momentum swaps that defined the first two sets. Mertens won the first three points, Putintseva the next five, Mertens the next three to earn a match point. Putintseva served at 5-6, at which point Mertens did the last thing a pro ever wants to do versus someone who isn’t serving and volleying—a service return right into the net. Lackluster movement from Mertens at 6-all gave Putintseva a set point, that opportunity squandered with a long forehand. At 7-all, Putintseva pounded one ball after another to the Mertens forehand, drawing an error for set point number two. At this stage, Putintseva appeared the player, Mertens merely a reactive striker. But at 7-8, an easily detectable drop shot from Putintseva gave Mertens the chance to charge forward proficiently and close out the rally with an easy smash. At 8-all, perhaps by now frustrated, Putintseva on the next two points overhit a forehand and a backhand. Said Mertens, “I just tried to look at it point by point.”

Mertens next plays another player with an adroit approach to building points, fourth-seeded Daria Kasatkina. These two first competed versus one another at an ITF event six years ago, Kasatkina winning that match. Since then, they’ve split their two WTA-level matches, the most recent coming in Stuttgart on clay in 2019. “She brings a lot of balls back,” said Mertens. “I’m going definitely going to expect a difficult one.”