Tennis can be a cruel sport. With each tournament, all but one athlete exits the tournament tasting defeat. Losing is an inevitable and integral part of the game. But on the flip side, each week presents a fresh opportunity to use those losses and apply them to the never-ending learning experience that is being a professional tennis player.
All great players have both a short memory, as well as an extensive recollection of all the matches they’ve played. Friday’s quarterfinal between Victoria Azarenka and Elise Mertens will be a fascinating look into the Belgian’s mind as she tries to recover from one of the most merciless beatdowns in recent US Open history.
Mertens entered her US Open quarterfinal matchup against Azarenka on the heels of a dominant 6-3, 6-3 victory over Sofia Kenin in the fourth round. Vegas even listed her as a slight favorite over Azarenka before the match, only to fall, 6-1, 6-0, in just over an hour. A loss like that can certainly rattle a player's confidence, but Mertens has responded well, having won seven of her last nine matches.
Ranked No. 21, Mertens has evolved into one of the most solid competitors on the WTA tour. With her 6-4, 6-2 victory over Karolina Muchova, she became the first player to win 30 matches on the season. Mertens isn't one who typically donates many freebies, suffocating her opponents with exceptional return game (she’s 2nd in percentage of return points won) and accurate placement on nearly every shot. But none of that matters when facing an athlete like Azarenka, who, at her best, can wipe away anyone without breaking much of a sweat.
In New York, Mertens quickly found herself outside of her comfort zone, unsure of the proper game plan against the flaming-hot Belarusian. Mertens will need to turn up her aggression, and somehow force Azarenka to defend. Below, Mertens passed up an opportunity to approach, and got caught in no man's land. She’ll need to avoid uncertain plays like this against Azarenka.
First serve percentage is always one of tennis’ most important stats, but it’s absolutely paramount against Azarenka, who blisters every second serve return, like so.
Even if Mertens played her best, there was no beating Azarenka on that day. The two-time Australian Open champion has since cooled down, but she's finally regained the confidence that was lacking for the better part of the last three years.
This time around, Azarenka is listed as a slight -125 favorite. Revenge matches are real—it’s extremely difficult to beat a quality opponent twice in a row. Although it’s on a much smaller stage, Mertens has a chance to wash her hands of that epic beatdown on Arthur Ashe Stadium. Expect the rock-solid Belgian to capitalize on the extremely slow indoor courts in Ostrava.
The Pick: Elise Mertens