Svitolina said after the match that she had been dealing with a right hip injury throughout the tournament, but she praised Mertens for her strong start to the year and consistent play.
“She’s playing a good level, so I had to push myself,” Svitolina said. “She didn’t give me opportunities. All the credit to her, because she played really good tennis.”
Mertens began playing tennis at age 4, just as her home country was beginning its golden age in the sport.
Clijsters and Justine Henin, rivals and compatriots, reached the No. 1 ranking for the first time in 2003, and competed against each other in three Grand Slam finals — the last of them here in 2004.
“Tennis was really big,” Mertens said in an interview. “Everybody was playing tennis; I think it was the No. 1 sport in Belgium.”
Mertens has gleaned some of her work ethic from Clijsters, who continues to impress Mertens with her intensity during their training sessions at Clijsters’s academy.
“She’s an amazing person,” Mertens said of Clijsters. “She works for every point, still. When I’m practicing with her, I can feel that tension still there, trying to compete, trying to have the greatest mind-set and work that she still has. She has an amazing talent.”
Mertens decided to work with her boyfriend, Robbe Ceyssens, as a coach. The pair had met as children at local tennis events, and after a decade apart, they reunited romantically.
Though Mertens conceded that the dual personal and professional nature of their relationship was occasionally complicated, she credited their partnership for her success.
“Since then it’s only gone upwards, so it was a great decision,” Mertens said.
As one of the youngest coaches on tour, Ceyssens, 24, tries to make up for his relative lack of experience by studying matches on YouTube, particularly those of Roger Federer, Serena Williams and Clijsters.
Like Mertens, Ceyssens became obsessed with the sport during the heyday of Henin and Clijsters, and remembers climbing out of bed as a child to watch the Australian Open final between them.
“There was a tennis boom, and then it was a bit quiet when they retired,” he said. “Now people are getting out of bed again to watch Elise play, so it’s really nice.”
Mertens and Ceyssens’s first tournament together was the 2016 United States Open, where Mertens, then ranked 137th, won three matches in qualifying and then took a set off third-seeded Garbiñe Muguruza in a first-round loss.
Mertens intended to play the qualifying competition here last year. But she had entered a WTA tournament in Hobart, Australia, at the same time, and she needed to lose her second-round match against Sachia Vickery to be allowed to compete in Melbourne. After one game, Mertens called a medical timeout, but Vickery, who also had plans to play the qualifiers in Melbourne, beat her to it and retired from the match herself.
Mertens played on in Hobart and ultimately claimed her first WTA title there, launching her into the top 100 (Vickery lost in the first round of qualifying in Melbourne).
“It was a little sad, because you want to compete at one of the biggest tournaments in the world,” Mertens said of watching Melbourne from afar last year. “But it was also a good feeling, because not everybody wins a WTA title. It was mixed feelings but more happy feelings. “
Mertens steadily climbed the rankings throughout last season, reaching a final in Istanbul; the semifinals in New Haven, Bastad and Luxembourg; and the third round of the French Open. She successfully defended her title in Hobart last week.
Her draws in the last two Grand Slam events were daunting, putting her up against eventual finalists in the first round of both tournaments: Venus Williams at Wimbledon and Madison Keys at the United States Open.
“When you see them reaching the final, both of them, you think, ‘Oh, I had a bad draw,’” Mertens said. “But they were great matches, great experience. You have to play them, too. Even if I lost, I learned a lot from these matches.”
But with a more forgiving path in Melbourne, Mertens has reached the semifinals without losing a set. That streak seemed unlikely during her second-round match, when she trailed Daria Gavrilova by 0-5 in the first set and needed to fend off eight set points before surging back to take it, 7-5.
Mertens’s breakthrough follows a pattern in women’s tennis, which has seen a player reach her first major semifinal at 18 of the last 19 Grand Slam tournaments. Last year’s U.S. Open was the only exception. Two of the last three Grand Slam titles have been won by unseeded players, with Jelena Ostapenko winning the French Open and Sloane Stephens winning the U.S. Open last year.
Wozniacki is in the Australian Open semifinals for the second time, and has a chance to make up for one of her most scarring losses. In a 2011 semifinal, she held a match point against Li Na in the second set before losing, 3-6, 7-5, 6-3.
Wozniacki recalls vivid details of that match, which she said is “still haunting me till this day.” The sun was in her eyes when she served up 3-1 in the second set; if she had been on the other side of the court, she theorized, she might have been able to extend her lead. The day after the loss, she uncharacteristically returned to the practice court to let out her frustration.
“I usually forget matches, and I don’t remember playing certain people,” Wozniacki said. “I don’t remember a lot of things, but that one is one that I remember very well.”
Wozniacki lost that match largely because of passive play in crucial stages, as she allowed Li to dictate down the stretch. But Wozniacki has shored up her forehand and serve as part of a dedicated tilt toward more assertive tennis. Against Suárez Navarro, she hit nine forehand winners, hammered 10 aces and dropped her serve only once.
“Always Caro with the backhand was good from when she was young, but with the forehand I think she’s playing more aggressive right now, more down the line,” Navarro said. “Mentally and physically, she always was good.”
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