First Meeting: Venus Williams and Elise Mertens

In her twentieth grand slam appearance the legend has a draw from the gods. A draw that may just secure her first Coupe Suzanne Lenglen. A draw without Azarenka, Sharapova or sister Serena. A draw that has already been whittled of the less than one hundred percent Kerber, Kvitova and Keys. A draw that many have labeled the most open in history. A draw that led Tennis Channel to hold a player’s draft. A draw that has been decimated by injury and upsets. However, while the tennis world and maybe the odd makers are perturbed by the draw, like Mladenovic, I would not classify it as open. It is stacked with great players who, given the right circumstances can excel. Though Halep, Svitolina and even Muguruza maybe the remaining favorites, it is Venus who has my vote. She comes into this tournament without a lot of clay match play, but after reaching the finals at the Australian Open, tinkering with her game and buckling down on her mental match slips Venus Williams has tunnel vision here. She has tough-out her first match against Wang 6-4, 7-6(3) and breezed through Nara 6-3, 6-1.

In Venus’ third round match, she faced Belgium’s #60 Elise Mertens. The age, experience and even height gap between the two is notable. At twenty-one, Mertens has only been on the tour since 2013 and this is her first main draw grand slam. This is a tough round for Mertens after Gavrilova  7-6(4), 1-6, 6-4 and Hogenkamp 6-3, 6-4. Mertens does not have a weapon that can hurt Venus. Her serve has neither pace nor placement. And though her forehand and backhand are decent, she does not have any variety. Her movement will be tested by the unmatched easy gait and movement of her opponent.

In a faux blue print wrap dress with a dark blue swatch for emphasis and a matching visor to protect her eyes and intricately twisted natural hair, she took the court. She came out the gate with an ace down the T signaling a focused start to the match.  Venus was so on, she painted the lines early in the match, forcing her opponent to inspect no fewer than two lines in the first two games. Down 0-2, Mertens proved that she was there to play aggressively if needed when she broke back in the third game to 2-1. With her coach/boyfriend, Mertens’ plan was clear. Make Venus move, a lot. But with an ability to turn defense to offense, Venus had Martens on the move highlighting her inability to hit on the run and her backhand’s vulnerability. Venus kept a strangle hold on the game, dictating play. She pushed Mertens back with her pace and stinging returns quickly reaching 5-1.

In the seventh game Venus relented ever so slightly with a dodgy serve and splayed forehands giving Mertens the break for 5-2. In the past, this was when Venus lost focus or energy letting her opponents back into matches when she had a sizable lead. When the eight game began Venus’ fans sent her their energy. We all knew this was a turning point in the match. She had to re-focus and eliminate the errors. Mertens understood that this was a big game and she began with a body serve that Venus got back into play but sent the next forehand long. Mertens’ confidence and serve improved and she held with a squash forehand that barely made it over the net. When Venus served for the set at 5-3 the dwindling evening crowd was glued as she breezed through the game triumphantly though she looked spent.

In the second set Mertens got off to a better start holding serve but Venus re-asserted her dominance quickly reaching 5-1. At this point she looked determined to deliver a breadstick and she did. Though the score does not reflect it, Mertens was really in the match, she fought back and got a couple beautiful winning shots. She was simply over-matched and Venus did not let-up.

In one hour and two minutes, Venus secured the win 6-3, 6-1. Her swinging forehands were beautiful and though there were a couple dips in her game resulting in twelve errors, she decidedly got the win without exerting too much energy. Next up is Timea Bacsinszky who stopped Venus last year in the fourth round 6-2 6-4. With two hard-court wins on Bacsinszky, Venus will be prepared to take her game to the versatile and smart player. Venus is simply in it to win it!

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