DUBAI, February 20, 2019 (by Michael Dickens)
It’s a shame that someone had to lose what turned out to be an extraordinarily entertaining – some are calling it an epic – match between top-seeded Simona Halep and Ons Jabeur, the inspirational figure of Arab women’s tennis. The two faced each other in a featured, second-round Centre Court match at the Dubai Duty Free Tennis Championships on a festive evening in the Emirates Wednesday.
As the match reached exactly two hours, the largest crowd attending this week’s WTA Premier tournament was already gleaming with excitement. There were plenty of fans waving tricolor Romanian and bright red and white Tunisian flags, each representing Halep’s and Jabeur’s home countries. Oh, and there was plenty of loud, Fed Cup-like chanting permeating the Aviation Club stadium, too.
With the score deadlocked at a set apiece and the World No. 2 Halep serving her fourth match point in a deciding tiebreaker, ahead 8-7, the 45th-ranked wild card Jabeur sailed a forehand return of a two-fisted backhand by Halep long at the completion of an all-too-brief, six-shot rally. Suddenly, the match was over. Much to her relief, the former No. 1 Halep escaped with a come-from-behind 1-6, 6-2, 7-6 (7) victory that advanced her into the quarterfinal round.
Here’s how match point from Centre Court was described by commentator Sue Thearle: “Simona Halep finds her way through, but how tough was that against Ons Jabeur, who had a match point of her own? The only sadness is one of them had to lose an extraordinary match. It was stunning to watch, full of the most unbelievable shot making. The former champion edges into the quarterfinals. She won’t have many tougher matches than that this year.”
— Dubai Tennis Champs (@DDFTennis) February 19, 2020
Indeed, Halep was given all that she could handle by Jabeur in her first match since losing to Garbiñe Muguruza in the semifinals of the Australian Open last month. She started off a bit rusty and found herself a set down to the in-form Jabeur, who was coming off her own best Grand Slam showing, where she reached the quarterfinals at Melbourne. Then, somehow, despite the passionate, mostly-pro Jabeur crowd amping up their enthusiasm with every point, Halep saved the Tunisian’s only match-point opportunity – and finally triumphed on her own fourth match point.
Now, with just five seeds left in the draw, Halep is the only former Dubai champion still standing. She’ll be back on Centre Court Thursday evening against No. 7 seed Aryna Sabalenka of Belarus in the last quarterfinal match of the day.
After her victory against Jabeur, Halep compared the Centre Court atmosphere to that of a football or a Fed Cup match. “I didn’t really realize what is going on on court. Everyone was with a lot of energy. So, we had to give our best. I think it was a great match,” she said.
“The only one thing that you have to do when you don’t have rhythm during the match, just put your head down and fight for every ball. You never know when you can win an easy ball or a tough ball. What I had to do is just fight. I’m really proud that I could do that.”
— WTA (@WTA) February 19, 2020
With a 4-1 lead in the third set, it appeared that Halep could serve it out and start prepping for her next match. Instead, she lost five of the next six games and, suddenly, Jabeur found herself ahead 6-5 – and serving for a place in the quarterfinals. However, the Tunisian, who is enjoying a career-best ranking, couldn’t close it out. Whether it was due to a lack of confidence or loss of muscle memory – or something else – remains to be seen.
What happened was this: Halep broke at love to force a deciding tie-break. Then, down 2-1, the Romanian won five of the next six points that gave her three consecutive match points. And guess what? Jabeur saved each of them: with her serve, with a Hawk-Eye challenge that went in her favor, and with a smash winner. The Tunisian earned a match point of her own after Halep was unable to connect with a backhand that went long. Finally, at 7-6 for Jabeur, her forehand failed her and she netted two easy returns. With Halep’s fourth match-point opportunity, at 8-7, Jabeur sailed a forehand return long. Halep had survived.
This is nuts!! 🇹🇳🇷🇴
— Reem Abulleil (@ReemAbulleil) February 19, 2020
“In the end I don’t know how I could finish that in a right way,” the 28-year-old Halep told reporters, feeling a sense of relief. “It’s really tough to read (Jabeur’s) game because she doesn’t give rhythm. She can make unbelievable shots; she can miss a little bit too easy.
“After along period that I didn’t play matches, after that semifinal that I lost in Australia, I’m really happy that I could just fight until the end and to turn it around even if I was lead 4-1. I was down in the tie-break. But it was a good match.”
It’s understandable that the 25-year-old Jabeur, the Arab No. 1, felt a sense of disappointment following her loss to Halep after coming so close. “Unfortunately, I didn’t play my best tennis today,” she said. “There is a lot of positive things in this match, but I feel like a lot of negativity right now, which is going to take time for me to be in a better spot I hope.
“The only thing going to replay in my head is match point.”
Jabeur, who has achieved modest success on the WTA Tour since 2012 and twice represented her country in the Summer Olympics (2012 London, 2016 Rio), admitted she should have been more patient against Halep.
“But then, the stress and everything, it wasn’t really easy. Yeah, it’s going to hurt for a few days, that’s for sure.”
There will be better days ahead for Jabeur. With her ability to mix up her game with a variety of slice combined with an occasional drop-shot surprise, she’s a player who is certainly on the rise – and is also popular, both with her fellow players and with fans.
“If it was last year, probably, I would be happy because I made three sets against Simona Halep,” said Jabeur. “Now, I’m more angry because I didn’t win the match. I know I could have. I know I had the level to.”
I want to take the time to thank all the Tunisians who came to support me today 🙏 you guys were amazing, unbelievable atmosphere ❤️❤️🇹🇳🇹🇳🇹🇳 SO PROUD TO BE TUNISIAN 🙏🇹🇳❤️#YALLAH #GRINTA pic.twitter.com/Oag6gJXhU5
— Ons Jabeur (@Ons_Jabeur) February 19, 2020