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Elise Mertens leading next generation of Belgian tennis

(AP Photo/Dita Alangkara)

By JUSTIN BERGMAN

Associated Press

MELBOURNE, Australia (AP) When Elise Mertens was growing up in the medieval city of Leuven, Belgium, Kim Clijsters and Justine Henin were taking Belgian tennis to new heights. She remembers, back to when she was five, seeing Clijsters play for the first time - the year Clijsters made her first French Open final.

"I mean, what they achieved was amazing, and of course I looked up to them," Mertens said.

Now, she's is following in their sizable footsteps. The 22-year-old Mertens upset No. 4-seeded Elina Svitolina 6-4, 6-0 on Tuesday to reach the semifinals of the Australian Open, the first Belgian woman to do so since Clijsters' last appearance at the tournament in 2012.

Mertens has trained at Clijsters' tennis academy in Belgium for the past three years and has grown close to the four-time major winner. Clijsters has been watching all of Mertens' matches in Melbourne this week and texting her support.

"She was also stressed in my last match," Mertens said in her on-court interview after beating Svitolina. "She said, `Oh my God, I have so much stress.'"

And Mertens' game has clearly benefitted from Clijsters' mentoring, as well as her work with her coach and boyfriend Robbe Ceyssens, particularly in the past year as she's shot up the rankings.

Her rapid ascent began last January in Australia at a small tournament in Hobart that's held the same week as qualifying for the Australian Open. Mertens and her second-round opponent, Sachia Vickery, were both entered in the qualifying event in Melbourne and needing to withdraw from Hobart, but Vickery retired from their match first. With qualifying no longer an option, Mertens remained in Hobart and was soon rewarded with her first WTA title.

She also reached the third round of the French Open last year, and by the end of 2017, her ranking had jumped from No. 120 to 35. Safely in the main draw for this year's Australian Open, Mertens returned to Hobart - and won the title again.

"Didn't really have a lot of expectations here (in Melbourne)," she said. "I played a qualifier first round, so I was expected to win. Not always easy, but yeah, as it moved forward, first round, second round, I didn't really expect to be in the semis."

With her surprising play in Melbourne, Mertens is attracting quite a bit of attention - a new experience for a self-described "normal, quiet girl."

"She seems very strong mentally, moves well and doesn't have any weaknesses," 18-time major winner Martina Navratilova said. "Kim didn't have any weaknesses, did she? (Clijsters) knows how to play the game and I'm sure she's given Elise some good pointers. That always helps to get a champion's viewpoint."

Mertens' run is also testament to the unpredictability and newfound depth in the women's game, which has seen newcomers such as Jelena Ostapenko and Sloane Stephens come out of nowhere to win majors in the last year. First-time semifinalists have also broken through in 19 of the last 20 majors.

Mertens said seeing this has helped her believe that she, too, could contend for a Grand Slam title.

Now, she's just two wins away. Her next opponent will be No. 2-seeded Caroline Wozniacki, who beat Carla Suarez Navarro in three sets in a quarterfinal match that finished after 1:30 a.m. Wednesday.

"I've got nothing to lose, that's for sure," she said. "I guess I'm a bit, well, the underdog, as today. But I'm ready for it. ... I'm just going to give it my all and see where it ends."

Updated January 23, 2018

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