It’s fun to place tennis players into boxes. And it’s even more fun when the players jump out of those boxes and play in a manner that goes against their supposed nature.
Rafael Nadal is often classified as a counterpuncher, but it is always amazing to watch him get on one of his offensive streaks, crunching forehand winners like there’s no tomorrow. Karen Khachanov is supposed to be a towering ball-basher, but we had to admire the way he ground out a win over Novak Djokovic in the Paris Masters final last year. Fabio Fognini is bracketed by half of us as an aggressively crazy shot-maker and by the other half as an obsessively tireless defender, and both the halves are impressed when… he plays a perfectly boring match with no wild mood swings.
If you had to place Elise Mertens and Simona Halep into boxes, what would they be? By most accounts, Mertens would be designated as the proactive shot-maker while Halep would be labelled the defensive counterpuncher.
That wasn’t quite how things unfolded in the Doha final between the two women though. For the first set and a half, it was Halep who was doing all the creating. She was going for her first serve, flattening out her forehand, and hitting the down-the-line backhand with glorious abandon.
In the face of such a surprising onslaught from the diminutive Romanian, Mertens had no option but to retreat behind the baseline and repeatedly dig out balls from difficult positions. At times during the match, she almost seemed like a lightweight player compared to the faster and momentarily stronger Halep; Mertens was too often on the backfoot, and didn’t look remotely in control of the proceedings.
Was it surprising that she still managed to hang in the rallies – and in the match – long enough for Halep to cool down? If you’ve been following Mertens’ career since her breakout run to the Australian Open semi-final last year, you’d know that defense is not her strongest suit. She lives and dies by the first strike, and usually litters the stat sheet with a high number of winners and unforced errors.
In that respect, her win in Doha might well be a bigger step in her evolution than the semi-final run in Melbourne. She still wins a majority of her points by using her vaunted strength of shot, but she has now shown that she can scramble when the situation calls for it and put the proverbial extra ball back in the court to elicit errors from a hot opponent.
Mertens defeated three top 10 players this week – Kiki Bertens in the quarter-final, Angelique Kerber in the semi-final, and Halep in the final. This was the first time she had defeated more than one top 10 players in the same tournament, and it was not hard to see why. Armed with a newfound willingness to grind, and an especially effective slice forehand when pushed wide on that wing, Mertens showcased a more well-rounded game in Doha than most of us thought she had.
To her credit, that love for the grind only made an appearance when it absolutely had to. For the most part, she jumped on the smallest of openings she got, stepping into the court and firing her groundstrokes into the corners.
All of that was until she reached the final. Once she got there, she was presented with a new and seemingly insurmountable challenge: there was just no opening in sight. Halep was striking the ball with so much depth and precision, and hitting so many clean winners, that the Belgian was reduced to a spectator. Her improved defense helped her stay in the match, but everyone knew there was no way she could win while planted 10 feet behind the baseline.
Mid-way through the match she summoned her coach David Taylor for an on-court pep talk, which she clearly needed. And Taylor told her what any rational human would have – that she needed to get closer to the baseline, and prevent Halep from dictating play with her down-the-line blows.
Mertens started doing exactly that from the middle of the second set onwards, and it paid almost immediate dividends. She broke back twice to get back into the contest, and stayed with Halep until 4-4 in the second set. It also helped that Halep’s aggressive approach started showing its pitfalls at roughly the same time that Mertens started opening up her shoulders.
The thing with playing out of your comfort zone is that sooner or later you suffer a breakdown. Halep, for all her technical superiority, is at her best when she’s defending rather than attacking. She doesn’t have the firepower to keep hitting past her opponent, and when she tries to, the errors eventually start piling up.
The tide started turning in that pivotal stretch during the second set, and Mertens was solid enough to surf it all the way to a remarkable comeback victory. Halep looked visibly worn out by the end of the match, reverting back to her counterpunching self, and Mertens took advantage by approaching the net more frequently.
Ultimately, that willingness to take risks, that efficiency in ending points, may have been the single biggest reason why Mertens’ offense won the title and Halep’s didn’t.
Of course, no account of a Mertens win can be complete without a mention of her famed down-the-line backhand. While Halep has a pretty neat version of that shot herself, Mertens’ is a little extra special; when the Belgian hits a down-the-line bullet, it stays hit. The one that she unleashed at 15-30, 3-4 in the second set was a shot of such imperious glory that it left even the speedy Halep flat-footed.
The 23-year-old is back in the top 20 with this win, but it feels a little strange that she ever fell out of it. The general consensus was that she hadn’t truly built on her Australian Open semi-final showing last year; while she had won a couple of minor titles in the spring of 2018, she had failed to make a mark at the high-profile events.
But maybe she needed that mini-slump to discover new ways of staying competitive. She has always had top 10-level firepower, but this week in Doha she also exhibited world-class defense and consistency. Her newfound ability to reset points with clever slices and moonballs is likely to hold her in good stead as her career progresses.
Mertens will always be placed in the ‘aggressive and powerful’ box of playing styles, given the nature of her biggest strengths. But it's good to know that every once in a while she can jump out of that box and dive into the defensive counterpuncher one too.
That makes her even more fun to watch than she already was.
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Updated Date: Feb 17, 2019 11:14:07 IST