AO: Mertens, Sabalenka wind down partnership with second Slam title

AO: Mertens, Sabalenka wind down partnership with second Slam title

Elise Mertens and Aryna Sabalenka are pausing their Grand Slam doubles partnership despite a triumphant fortnight in Melbourne, winning their second major title as a team in straight sets.

Aryna Sabalenka’s late decision to stay in the women’s doubles draw drew a major reward alongside Elise Mertens when the two captured their second major title as a team, sealing No. 3 seeds Barbora Krejcikova and Katerina Siniakova, 6-2, 6-3 at the Australian Open.

Sabalenka had initially meant to put her doubles on the back-burner in the midst of her 15-match winning streak, but committed to at least one more run with Mertens, with whom she first partnered at this event two years ago and has won five total titles—including the 2019 US Open.

“I made the decision to play less doubles just after Abu Dhabi,” the Belarusian explained after her second-round singles win. “Elise couldn’t find someone else for the Australian Open, so of course, I said, I’ll play with her. We spoke about this tournament and I couldn’t leave her alone.”

Sabalenka’s singles showed no ill-effects from the doubles load, reaching the fourth round for just the second time in her career and playing 23-time Grand Slam champion Serena Williams to three sets, but remained firm in her decision to prioritize singles for the immediate future.

“We are playing Dubai and Miami,” Sabalenka clarified after the final, leaving the door open for doubles at smaller tournaments. “I feel like it's a little bit more stress on the Grand Slams."

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“It's her decision,” echoed Mertens, who also reached the second week in singles. “I really respect that. Doubles takes some energy away, that's true. On the other hand, for me, I just like to play matches.

“She can definitely try and we'll see. If she still likes to play doubles, I'm here!”

As the No. 2 seeds in doubles, Mertens and Sabalenka were made to battle through a pair of three-setters early on, only to shift into turbo by the quarterfinals, winning their final three matches in straight sets.

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“We didn't expect it to go that good,” Mertens said of their partnership.

“We were thinking to focus more on singles again [at the time],” added Sabalenka.

“Then we just played a lot of doubles,” Mertens finished. “It's difficult to play with a singles player. The focus from singles players is on singles, and doubles players, on doubles. Still, you can make a little bit more fun if you're playing with a singles player."

Krejcikova and Siniakova, who have had their greatest successes on the doubles court, have been a pair since their junior days, and won the rare Roland Garros-Wimbledon double back in 2018. An Australian Open crown would have put them one major title away from a Career Grand Slam, but the Czechs were overwhelmed by Mertens and Sabalenka’s combined power and precision.

Nabbing the lone break of the second set, Sabalenka served through a titanic final game that saw them save three break points before finally securing victory on their fourth opportunity.

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Where most of the top doubles teams boast some stylistic or tactical contrast, the Belarusian/Belgian duo employ a similar similarly aggressive approaches. Where they most differ is in personality: Mertens’ more reserved nature is often a foil to Sabalenka’s emotional exuberance.

“From my side, I would say I was pretty relaxed on doubles. I was doing whatever I want to. I didn't care about winning or losing,” Sabalenka said before Mertens cut in.

“She didn't care about me!”

Showing Mertens a dance move after clinching the title, Sabalenka typically succeeds in bringing Mertens out of her shell in time for the trophy ceremony. Friday’s was no different, as the two collaborated on several whimsical poses for what may be their last photoshoot for a while.

“We were nervous,” Sabalenka said of their now-signature trophy leap.

“She's strong,” Mertens assured. “She can handle it.”