Belgium has been on the look out for the next big talent after some of the all-time greats that paved the way for the up-and-comers that continue to excel in the 2018 season. One of those youngsters is Elise Mertens, who is looking to gain some semblance of the success that seven-time Grand Slam champion Justine Henin and four-time Grand Slam winner Kim Clijsters managed to create in their time on the WTA Tour.
Mertens has made a real splash in the biggest of tournaments this season as she made her way into the semi-final of the Australian Open. This is thee first time she has been able to do this after facing some particularly difficult draws in Slam draws in the 2017 season, where she faced the likes of Venus Williams and Garbiñe Muguruza early on in those main draws.
What the 22-year-old Belgian has shown in the early period of the 2018 season is that she has the capability to cause a real storm on the WTA Tour even by upsetting the real big names, which emphasises how far she has come in a short space of time. This time last year she was outside the World’s Top 100, where she played the Hobart International tournament. In that tournament, Mertens marched through the qualifying rounds and then won the whole event without dropping a single set; in doing so she broke into the World’s Top 100 for the first time. The win in Hobart would come at a cost as Mertens was unable to compete in the Australian Open qualifying rounds, but she definitely made up for lost time twelve months later as she turned up a few ranking places shy of the seeding places. Again, another sign that she had made undoubtable improvements to her game.
The improvements in her game aren’t necessarily just technical. Some of the most notable enhancements evident is the mentality of the Belgian. She may just be 22 years old, but her mental resilience is far beyond he years and is one of the standout qualities of the player and I think that is partly due to the stable, solid coaching setup with Robbe Ceyssens, boyfriend and full-time coach from the Kim Clijsters Academy, where Mertens does a lot of her training. The structure that she has off-court has actually given her that platform to become an even better player, which is obvious now that she sits in the Top 20 of the singles ranking after the showing in Melbourne.
Mertens has not really been on the tour for an awful long time. Her debut at a WTA tour level main draw came in s-Hertogenbosch in the back end of the 2016 season, so it is mightily impressive to have already progressed to the last 4 of a major inside the first two seasons on tour. That is not just steady progress but that is a massive climb.
If Mertens is to become a Grand Slam champion in singles, what will be key in clinching the first title for a Belgian at a major since her mentor Clijsters did at the Australian Open in 2011? I’ve already seen glimpses of it, but the most crucial part to Mertens’ game other than her great mentality is the transition from the baseline to the net. Mertens has a wonderful backhand and a decent forehand, but most significantly she has a penetrating serve that can push her opponents back and give her the first dominant and telling shot in a rally. The Belgian is showing she can sense the danger and also attack when necessary. If she attacks when the opportunity comes her way then she will make life a whole lot easier for her and that really is the difference between a major semi-finalist and a major winner, capitalising on that short ball, punishing the opponent for a central attackable ball with ruthlessness. That attitude is something that can elevate Mertens to that next level, which I honestly do not think she is far from.
The Belgian reveals that slick grass court surface as her preferred surface and she will be looking for a huge month on the grass, where she makes the next push to the World’s Top 10. With a precise and reliable serve and a decent ground game to back it up, anything really is possible for the talented Belgian.
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