Halep races past Mertens into quarters

Top seed drops just three games in a 59-minute fourth-round routing of Belgian Elise Mertens.

 - Dan Imhoff

Simona Halep is already showing signs of the shift in mentality she vowed to implement after succumbing in one of the biggest Grand Slam final boilovers at Roland-Garros last year.

If ever the Romanian found herself playing for the Coupe-Suzanne-Lenglen again she would not let an opponent bounce back and bully her about the court as Jelena Ostapenko and Maria Sharapova had done before.

It was time to fight fire with fire.

On Monday, the top seed blasted her strongest warning yet she was the woman to beat at Roland-Garros this season, wiping Belgian 16th seed seed Elise Mertens 6-2 6-1 in just 59 minutes to reach the quarter-finals.

Barring a wobble at the finish line – broken when serving for the match – it was a show of unwavering intensity.

Halep had not looked this comfortable all tournament. But for a woman who expected so much of herself, even a winner count of 16 would not cut it.

This was not quite a performance that would deliver the silverware in another final, in her mind at least.

“I was a bit nervous at the start of the match but I played my best match here at Roland-Garros,” Halep said. “I need to be more aggressive and try to finish the points because I don't hit so many winners.

“I don't have that much power, but if I play fast I feel like I improve a little bit more in my game, and that's the plan. But you have also to adjust yourself to the opponents when they are playing different, like today, or like someone that is defending better.”

Simona Halep, Roland-Garros 2018, 8è de finale© Corinne Dubreuil / FFT

Halep’s form on the clay leading in did not paint a picture of resounding title favourtism; a runner-up showing in Rome – where Elina Svitolina allowed her just four games – was the only stand-out.

Look beyond titles and finals, however, and a statement of consistency emerges. Victory over Mertens landed the Romanian her ninth straight quarter-final on clay.

“I’m thinking about winning a Grand Slam, but I don't know if it's gonna happen this year or in this life,” Halep grinned.

At least talk of title favouritism isn’t striking fear through her heart after a third Grand Slam runner-up appearance, this time to Caroline Wozniacki at the Australian Open in January.

“Well, I feel good when I hear that, but also, I will keep my line that it's very far to think about the title,” Halep said. “I have an important match Wednesday, so all my focus is on that one.”

Mertens had star power in her corner with Belgian former great Kim Clijsters watching on. Yet if the 22-year-old was going to emulate her idol with a run to a Roland-Garros final though, she would have to throw something different at the world No.1.

A humbling defeat to Halep in the Madrid second round was a sound wake-up call. Even with a 16-1 record on clay this season coming into the match, Halep was a step up.

“For me, it was too high a level. It's a good experience, anyway. I was not in a good way today. She was too good for me,” Mertens said.

“It highlights what I have to improve on. I know that the top 10 is another level, but I'm almost there.

“Mentally she was there. She did great things. She attacked, the ball was finished, but she's also a great defender.”

Halep will meet either seventh seed Caroline Garcia or two-time major winner Angelique Kerber for a place in the semi-finals.

“I think that I have learned in the past that I have to enjoy more, and to be thankful that I am in that position and that I have the possibility to give everything I have,” Halep said. “So I will do that.”

The No.1 ranking matters little to Halep these days. Only the prize at the end of the fortnight will do now.