Elise Mertens came into her fourth-round Wimbledon match against Barbora Strycova with a .500 record in her 2019 campaign (13-13), not having won three matches in any tournament except in February, when she defeated Simona Halep to capture the title of the WTA event in Doha. She carried a 1-0 record against Strycova into this match, having beaten her 6-3 7-6 in the third round of the U.S. Open last year, although in my opinion, that carried little weight going into this encounter.
As for Barbora Strycova, one interesting statistic you may have seen tossed around, but which deserved to be mentioned again, is her success in serving and volleying.
Entering Manic Monday, she led the remaining 16 women at Wimbledon in that category, using serve-and-volley a whopping 45 times over three matches and winning 36 of those points (note: it’s still a small percentage of serve-and-volley points compared to the total number of points played on her serve). For perspective, the second in that category was Petra Kvitova with eight attempts at serving and volleying in three matches.
Six of the 16 women had never even attempted to serve and volley once in their matches. Strycova is an outcast by a long margin in that particular sense.
Well, her serving and volleying was successful again, winning seven out of nine of those points, but by and large, approaching the net played a significant part in her 4-6 7-5 6-2 comeback victory on Court 12 on Manic Monday. She charged the net 42 times in this match, winning 31 of those points (by my count, I also count approaches when the ball does not come back). More importantly, she went 17 of 18 in that category AFTER she went down 2-5 in the second set.
Before I fast-forward to when the comeback started, I should underline how well Mertens executed her game plan until that point in the match.
Aware of Strycova’s attacking style of play, Mertens counteracted with an attacking plan of her own. She was not serving and volleying, nor nailing returns by any means, but she was looking for opportunities once the rally began to put Strycova on the run and sneak into the net.
She executed that plan brilliantly, especially with well-placed down-the-line accelerations. She waited a split second to see if Strycova was going to have to stretch for those shots and use her defensive slice to float the ball back (Strycova does that on both wings), and sneak in all of a sudden once she saw it was the case. She would then catch the first volley around the service line and place it to the open corner and finish it on the next volley. It was not the classic attacking game, but one that founded itself on calculated sneak approaches to the net.
It worked so well that Strycova was thrown off, constantly wondering while running for a ball if her opponent was on her way into the net. That led to more errors from the Czech player, which is the intended goal of charging the net at unexpected moments, but with some deliberate consistency: Make your opponent go for more than she desires and collect errors because she felt the urgency to take risks, due to thinking you are coming to the net.
Here are two examples of errors forced out of Strycova because she thought Mertens was charging again, even though Mertens was actually NOT:
* 1-1, 30-15 on Elise’s serve, she hits an aggressive, fairly deep forehand down-the-line. She had sneaked behind those types of shots to the net thus far, but she did not do so here. Strycova, thinking that Mertens might, tried to strike a flatter, lower backhand and missed it in the net.
* 2-3, 15-15 on Strycova’s serve, a long rally ensued in which Mertens reversed the pattern behind Strycova with a forehand down-the-line. Strycova changed direction and tried to dump it low above the net with a backhand slice cross-court, probably in hopes of getting it down to Elise’s feet at the net, except that the Belgian did not come in, and the shot ended up in the net.
With Mertens in full charge of the match at 6-4 5-2, Strycova held comfortably at love to get to 3-5, but in that game Mertens made two unforced errors (the first time she made two in one game in that set), one of which was her first unforced error on the forehand in the second set (it was on a makeable return) that ended the game. No biggie though, right? She just had to hold to close out the match.
Sometimes, though, when you are on a roll you want to keep it rolling to the finish line.
Even if making two unforced errors in a 5-2 game and losing it at love should not matter when your service game follows, you never want those errors to wake up some seeds of doubt that may have been dormant in your mind. I am not sure if that took place in Mertens’s mind – Strycova said in her postmatch press conference that she “saw” Mertens getting “nervous” in the 5-3 game.
The fact remains, however, that Mertens added two more unforced errors on the forehand side in the first three points of the next game (that made three forehand unforced errors in four points when she had made none up to that point in the set). Suddenly, Strycova held three break points in her hand. Mertens saved the first break point with an ace, but on the 15-40 point, Strycova nailed a forehand at straight at Mertens at the net**, clipping the Belgian’s racket for a winner.
**That was hit straight at Mertens’s hip when Strycova, on a high sitter inside the service line, could have hit to either side of Mertens for a clean passing shot. Strycova did not apologize. Mertens did not glare at her. Both women simply walked to the benches for the game change. Part of tennis, folks. Moving on.
That two-game swing in which Mertens won only one point out of nine launched Strycova’s remarkable comeback victory. Mertens, unfortunately for her, could not stop the streak of at least one or two unforced errors per game (one more forehand unforced error in the next game at 5-4) all the way to the end of the match.
Yet, let’s add and salute Strycova’s unwillingness to fold despite having been dominated until that point. Probably sensing that Mertens may tighten up at the finish line, she drastically reduced her unforced error count (she had 11 in the first set and 7 until 2-5 in the second) to make only two unforced errors in the second set after going down 2-5. She regrouped to apply some pressure of her own, coming to the net nine times in those last five games of the second set, winning all of them, including the set point!
“Well, the first set I wanted to go, but I always step back and it wasn’t the right play. I was just, like, I have nothing lose. So just go there and swing the ball and go to the net,” Strycova said in her postmatch conference when asked about the turnaround in the second set. She also added, “I kept telling myself to just swing the ball and go forward, because it helped me and it helped also my strokes. I was just focusing on that.”
Strycova continued the same pattern in the third set, winning eight out of nine points at the net in the final set and coming out victorious after two hours and 22 minutes of play.
It should be noted that Mertens called for the trainer at 0-3 down and had quite a bit of work done on her lower back on the court at first, then off the court. It was a long break before the first point of the next game to resume the match – as far as I know, and I am not 100% sure, the maximum time allowed on a medical time-out is 15 minutes, so at 12 minutes, it was within the limits, but probably the longest I have seen in years.
Strycova was understandably elated after her match, noting that she has been coming to Wimbledon for a long time, starting with juniors.
“I am proud of myself,” she said.
At the age of 33 (which she also reminded the audience), this is her second quarterfinal appearance at Wimbledon, 2014 being the other.
“It’s my 17th time here, and you just try to be happy. And I am very happy what I’m doing, and I am happy to play the quarters.”
Stryocova will take on Johanna Konta in Tuesday’s quarterfinals.