Jabeur’s Travel Odyssey Rewarded With Lexington Wins

WASHINGTON, August 13, 2020 (by Michael Dickens)

Olga Govortsova is a former World No. 35 from Minsk, Belarus, with ties to Huntsville, Ala., about a five-hour drive by car from the Top Seed Tennis Club near Lexington, Ky., where this week’s WTA Top Seed Open presented by Bluegrass Orthopaedics is taking place. It pales in comparison to what her opponent, eighth-seed Ons Jabeur, experienced just to get to the tournament on time.

By comparison, Jabeur’s journey from her native Tunisia to Lexington began in Tunis where she boarded a flight to New York’s JFK via Paris. However, a storm diverted her flight to Detroit. She eventually made it to New York – albeit seven hours later than planned – after which she and her team drove to Kentucky.

Both Govortsova and Jabeur took different journeys to arrive for their first tournament in five months, but it didn’t seem to deter their determination or enthusiasm for playing the sport they love.

The 31-year-old Govortsova came into Wednesday’s second-round match against the 39th-ranked Jabeur seeking to reach her first WTA quarterfinal since becoming a mother, when she gave birth to her son, Dominic, in February 2018. When Govortsova took Center Court in Lexington, she was riding an eight-match winning streak while playing in Kentucky, where she earlier won an ITF W100 event before the coronavirus pandemic shutdown of tennis. It all came to an end against Jabeur, and with it, she’ll have to wait a little longer to reach that elusive quarterfinal round.

Meanwhile, Jabeur has been enjoying a career-best season that has included three Top 20 wins and an improvement of 42 places in the rankings since the start of 2020. In the day’s opening match, Jabeur rallied from a shaky start and finished well to earn a 3-6, 6-2, 6-4 victory. It was the second time this year Jabeur has come back to win after losing the opening set. Next, she faces 53rd-ranked Coco Gauff in the quarterfinal round on Friday.

“My game was there, I know that I could mix it up a little bit and really bother her with my game, but I just didn’t find my rhythm in the beginning,” said Jabeur, 25, during her Zoom video news conference with reporters. “But I’m glad that I served good in the times that I needed to serve good – a couple of aces were really important for me to win my service games.”

While playing early amid a partly-cloudy, 84º-Fahrenheit day with 60 percent humidity might not seem ideal, Jabeur made the most of her opportunities against the 135th-ranked Govortsov by fighting back to win from a set down.

“I’m really proud of myself that I got the victory today,” she said.

In the early run, things were looking good for Govortsova as she broke Jabeur in consecutive games and consolidated both breaks for a 4-1 lead en route to winning the opening set 6-3. However, once Jabeur got on track – and it took a little while – the Tunisian hit some solid aces (finishing with 10) and worked through some challenges (five double faults and five breaks of her serve). The victory improved Jabeur’s season record to 13-5 and advanced her to her third quarterfinal of the season following her successes earlier in the year at the Australian Open and in Doha.

Before Wednesday, Govortsova owned a 1-0 lifetime record against Jabeur, having won a three-setter during the semifinals of the Indian Harbour Beach ITF W80 event en route to winning the title in 2017. However, there wouldn’t be a repeat of three years ago – and Jabeur’s a better player now than she was back then.

“To be honest, (Olga) is a good player, a tough one. You cannot give her any easy balls. She’s going to take the opportunity away from you,” said Jabeur.

“In the beginning, I was trying to take more risks – and missing – and I felt like I had the game to win today. Sometimes, it wasn’t right there. But I never thought I could lose this match.

“Somehow, I believed in myself, that I could come back and win it.”

Around the Top Seed Tennis Club

• While Tuesday’s first round was full of popcorn matches – with top seed Serena Williams, her sister Venus Williams, Coco Gauff and Sloane Stephens all in action – Wednesday’s order of play featured one that garnered plenty of attention. It matched 16-year-old American teenage sensation Gauff against No. 2 seed Aryna Sabalenka from Belarus.

After two hours and 48 minutes, Gauff emerged with a hard-fought 7-6 (4), 4-6, 6-4 victory for her second Top 20 win of the year to reach the final eight in Lexington.

During her post-match Zoom video conference with reporters, Gauff told Tennis TourTalk: “It’s pretty much impossible to play your best tennis for three hours. If you did, you wouldn’t be playing for three hours – you’d be over in an hour. Keeping the game level high throughout was pretty tough, but that’s just tennis, playing in different conditions, and just starting back on tour.

“I’m not too upset with how I played; I’m most proud of how I was able to handle myself, staying composed on the pressure points.”

Meanwhile, the 11th-ranked Sabalenka, 22, who had lifted the trophy at the WTA Premier 5 in Doha before the start of the coronavirus hiatus, had her six-match winning streak snapped by Gauff.

Although Gauff was outpointed by Sabalenka 104-101 and she committed 10 double faults, the Delray Beach, Fla. native won the final three games and closed it out on her first match-point opportunity.

Asked why she won, Gauff stated: “I think my mentality pushed me to win, to be honest,” she said. “We’re both playing good tennis, and had our ups and downs in the match. At the end of the day, it came down to a couple of close calls, a couple of points.”

Marie Bouzkova from the Czech Republic saved the best for the end of her match against Russia’s Anna Blinkova, both 22, who were playing for the second time. Serving for the match, the 48th-ranked Bouzkova capped a scrambling, athletic 23-shot back-and-forth rally with a cross-court forehand winner to beat No. 61 Blinkova 6-4, 6-2. It advanced Bouzkova to her fourth WTA quarterfinal.

While Blinkova prevailed against Bouzkova in straight-sets in last year’s Guangzhou quarterfinals, this time in Lexington, there was a different winner.

Bouzkova started big by jumping out to a 4-0 lead in the first set thanks to four double faults by Blinkova and kept building toward a victory. By the end of their one hour and 42-minute match, Blinkova had committed eight double faults and her serve was broken four times.

However, it was the end of the match rally that drew everyone’s attention. Once Bouzkova hit the last ball for a winner, she let out a big, joyful scream. Then, she promptly found a chair behind the baseline to sit down, towel off, and feel a sense of relief.

“It was a brutal, physical rally,” said Tennis Channel analyst Chanda Rubin, who commented on the match remotely from Los Angeles. “Bouzkova still had enough at the end to make a quick burst and get herself that win.”

• In the final Center Court match, American No. 49 Jennifer Brady upset No. 6 seed Magda Linette of Poland, 6-2, 6-3, in a quick one hour and eight minutes. Brady has yet to drop a set in either of her matches in Lexington, which began with a 6-2, 6-1 victory over Great Britain’s Heather Watson on Monday. In her win over the 36th-ranked Linette, Brady fired seven aces, won 77 percent of her first-serve points, and broke her opponent four times.

“Getting a couple of wins against anyone is good, especially right before a Grand Slam,” said Brady, meeting with reporters after her win. “I’m happy to be out here competing.”

Brady will play Bouzkova in one of Friday’s quarterfinals.

Passing shots

• When Aryna Sabalenka was asked by the WTA Insider about the tennis shutdown coming right after her title run in Doha, she said: “I was really sad. I felt like I found my game and that I could play more tournaments at that level. The first few weeks I was sad. I was a little bit panicking. But then I realized I cannot control it.”

• After beating Sloane Stephens for the second time in 2020, 17-year-old rising Canadian star Leylah Fernandez told the WTA website it felt great being back on court. Reaching the main draw as a qualifier, Fernandez upset the No. 7 seed Stephens, 6-3, 6-3, on Tuesday.

“Those six months were really hard mentally, not knowing when to start, how to train, how hard to train,” said Fernandez.

“I think my team and I did a good job planning and moving forward from there. And just being on court again I just had a lot of energy. I felt happier because the competition starts again. Hopefully, it’ll keep going like this.”

• Highlighting Thursday’s order of play is the second-round match featuring the Williams sisters, Venus and Serena. It’s the 31st time they’ve faced each other in their storied careers and it’s featured second on Center Court, not before 12:30 p.m. Eastern Time (6:30 p.m. CEST).

Play begins at 11 a.m. Eastern Time with Jil Teichmann vs. No. 5 seed Yulia Putintseva. After the Williams sisters showdown, it’s Catherine Bellis vs. Jessica Pegula (not before 2 p.m. Eastern Time), followed by wild card Shelby Rogers vs. qualifier Leylah Fernandez.