AO2018: Making new milestones

Published by Dan Imhoff

NEW HIGHS: AO2018 semifinalists Kyle Edmund, Elise Mertens and Hyeon Chung; Getty Images
A year ago, Elise Mertens didn’t even make the Australian Open main draw. Now on the cusp of a first Slam final in Melbourne, she’s one of several young players who’ll use this event as a marker of stunning progress.
There’s something about Australia that clicks in a big way for Elise Mertens.

It helps, the top-ranked Belgian admits, leaving a six-week pre-season training block in a freezing winter back home for the first summer hit-outs of the year.

“It’s a different atmosphere and I just love to be here,” Mertens said.

Her results clearly suggest as much.

Little more than 12 months after claiming her first career title in Hobart as a qualifier, she has gone back-to-back in the Tasmanian capital and won through to her first Grand Slam semifinal in her Australian Open debut.

Her upset of No.4 seed Elena Svitolina makes her the first Belgian woman to reach the last four in Melbourne since her idol and mentor Kim Clijsters six years ago.

Ranked 127th in the world at the start of last season, Mertens had pinned her hopes on winning through qualifying in Hobart, then potentially a round or two given a favourable draw, before making the short journey across Bass Strait to attempt to qualify for her second Grand Slam main draw.

Upon reaching the quarterfinals, though, Mertens was forced to reassess her early goals for 2017.

Told she would no longer make it to Melbourne in time to contest qualifying, she made up for it in the best way possible – by keeping on winning.

She ended up leaving Hobart with her first tour title, which catapulted her into the top 100 and kick-started a season that saw her finish in the top 40 and nominated as the WTA Newcomer of the Year.

Now Mertens is riding a 10-match winning streak and on the cusp of an unlikely first Grand Slam final.

The Belgian is not the only player whose breakout Australian Open in 2018 caps a big 12 months.

For Kyle Edmund, a distant British No.2 to Andy Murray, there was a new burden coming into the season’s opening major.

Having reached semifinals at Atlanta, Winston-Salem and Vienna last season he finished the year five spots lower than 2016 at No.50.

With five-time runner-up Murray ruled out due to a hip injury, the 23-year-old carried the weight as the lone British man in the draw.

And he’s handled it to aplomb. His win over No.3 seed Grigor Dimitrov – his first over a top 10 opponent – puts him through to his maiden Grand Slam semifinal.

The result will be enough to see him crack the top 30 and should he go one further to reach the final he would displace Murray as the British No.1

For Hyeon Chung, the ripple effect of beating his childhood idol – six-time champion Novak Djokovic, on Monday night – could prove profound back in his native South Korea.

In a nation where tennis is usually buried in the shadows of baseball, basketball, soccer and winter sports, Chung’s run to his first career Grand Slam quarterfinal is big news.

Riding the confidence of having claimed the inaugural Next Gen ATP Finals – for the best eight players aged 21 and under at the end of 2017 – Chung is also on a roll at Melbourne Park.

He has taken down four players ranked higher than him, including No.4 seed Alexander Zverev before Djokovic, and will start favourite to reach his first Grand Slam semifinal when he meets unheralded American Tennys Sandgren next.

Ranked outside the top 100 a year ago, Chung more than halved his ranking to a career-best No.44 by September before arriving in Melbourne at No.58.

It is not the first time he has hovered around the top 50, however, having risen to No.51 two years ago before injuries derailed his progression.

Sandgren, is on the verge of his own monumental breakthrough.

Only the second debutante to reach the Australian Open quarterfinals in 20 years, the 26-year-old started the tournament ranked No.96 before taking down the likes of former champion Stan Wawrinka and No.5 seed Dominic Thiem.

Prior to Melbourne, he hadn’t won a match in two Grand Slam main draw appearances.

The man whose mother fell onto the pool table back home and cracked a rib celebrating his win over Thiem, is more accustomed to grinding it out in Challengers and Futures events in the past three to four years.

His career prize money before Australian Open 2018 was $612,634. He’s guaranteed to leave Melbourne with $440,000 should he fall to Chung in the quarterfinals.

A breakout 12 months could all end up boiling down to one breakthrough Australian Open should any of their dream runs continue.

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