Two-time champion Simona Halep became the latest contender to fall in Madrid on Tuesday, as Elise Mertens battled back from a break down in both the second and third sets to take her out in the third round, 4-6, 7-5, 7-5.
Mertens’ victory over the No. 3-ranked Romanian was the equal-biggest win of her career.
“Yeah, she played really well, and she definitely deserved to win because she was stronger in the end,” Halep said after the match. “I cannot say that I played badly, but I did some mistakes, some important mistakes. You know, sometimes it’s just a little bit, and the match is going away.”
Given their head-to-head, Halep was definitely a favorite going into the match. Though she had lost once before to Mertens on hard courts, in the 2019 Doha final, Halep had swept their three previous meetings on clay, all in straight sets—losing a total of just 13 games in those six sets.
And after Halep won the first set on Tuesday, it looked like that pattern would continue.
But Mertens just wouldn’t let up this time, even though she was in deep trouble in the next two sets. The world No. 16 was down a break at 4-3 in the second set, and twice down a break at 3-2 and 4-3 in the third set. Mertens eventually snuck it out after two hours and 34 minutes on court.
“It was definitely a tough match, a close one—I just tried to stay on the court as long as possible, and I was mentally tough,” Mertens said. “I made her play a lot of rallies, she made me play a lot of rallies. It was just at the end, holding serve at the end. Overall I’m pleased about my performance.
“It was a close one. It could have gone either way.”
The winner here in 2016 and 2017, Halep will now move onto the second of two back-to-back WTA 1000s on clay in Rome. She conquered the Italian capital for the first time in 2020.
“I just want to recover because I’m a little bit tired after this match,” she said. “I had good matches. The tennis is good. So I just have to calm down and see what I have to do better than I did today.”
Mertens now has three career wins against No. 3s, having previously beaten a No. 3-ranked Sloane Stephens in the third round of Cincinnati in 2018, and No. 3 Halep in Doha two years ago.
The Belgian also improved to 20-5 on the season with the win over the two-time Grand Slam champion, becoming the sixth woman to record 20 tour-level wins this year after Ashleigh Barty (23), Veronika Kudermetova (22), Garbine Muguruza (21), Aryna Sabalenka (21) and Ons Jabeur (20).
Mertens will now play the No. 7-ranked Sabalenka in the quarterfinals of the WTA 1000 event.
“If she’s on fire, she’s making a lot of angles, a lot of winners,” Mertens said. “I’ll just try to put as many balls in the court as I can and try to take over a little bit when there’s a shorter ball.
“It will definitely be a difficult one.”