A Powerful Start to 2021 WTA Season By Ons Jabeur

Ons Jabeur (photo: @qatarairways/Twitter)

WASHINGTON, January 6, 2021 (by Michael Dickens)

Ons Jabeur saved two set points in the opening set and fired 31 winners en route to a 7-6 (3), 6-3 victory over Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova in one hour and 29 minutes to capture her first victory of 2021 in the opening round of the Abu Dhabi WTA Women’s Tennis Open at the Zayed Sports City International Tennis Centre in Abu Dhabi, U.A.E. Wednesday afternoon.

“To be honest, it was a good one for me,” Jabeur told Tennis TourTalk of her first win of the new season, in which she rallied from down 4-5 and overcame set points against Pavlyuchenkova in the first set with some blistering groundstroke winners. “It was a tough match, not an easy first round or first match, but I went there with the spirit like ‘I’m not afraid, I’m just going to go in and give it all.’”

Jabeur won not only with power and consistency, but also with a few well-timed and deftly-placed drop shots.

“It was fun, to be honest. I loved that my drop shot was really good today. I loved that I made a few nice shots,” she said. “I’m feeling good, I’m feeling fit and amazing on the court. So, hopefully, I can continue playing this way and even better.”

While the 26-year-old Tunisian is coming off of a history-making year in 2020, in which she became the first woman from an Arab country to reach the quarterfinals of a Grand Slam when she advanced to the last-eight at the Australian Open, she’s set her sights much higher for the new season ahead. Seeded 15th in Abu Dhabi, Jabeur has set some lofty goals for herself. She’s already achieved a career-high ranking of No. 31 in the WTA rankings, but why not shoot for the stars?

“I want to go for titles – I’ve had enough of quarterfinals – and I want to get into the Top 10,” Jabeur said during a virtual media chat with international reporters on the eve of her first match. “I know I have the level to be at this ranking and I know I can achieve this. I have put in the hard work needed to reach these goals and win more and more.”

Jabeur hit four aces and converted three of 13 break points against Pavlyuchenkova. Although she hit 35 unforced errors, Jabeur outpointed her opponent 83-69 to improve her lifetime win-loss record against Pavlyuchenkova 2-0. Meanwhile, the 38th-ranked Russian hit just six winners and made 28 unforced errors. Next, Jabeur will face the winner of Thursday’s match between 284th-ranked qualifier Kateryna Bondarenko of Ukraine and No. 95 Wang Yafan of China.


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“I feel like I’m a different player, I’m practicing much harder than before and I’m improving a lot,” Jabeur said.“I even noticed the amount of work I put in with fitness has been much better.

“Before, I wanted to be at the top level but didn’t know how to manage that. Now, I know how to do it. I’ve seen the results, I’ve set up some goals, and I aimed really high and it’s paying off.

“Sometimes, it’s tough to wake up and be motivated every day, I’ll be honest, but I always try to find the motivation. I feel like I have to give it all and aim to go very far in my career.”

Around the Abu Dhabi WTA Women’s Tennis Open

• No. 9 seed Maria Sakkari advanced with a solid 6-4, 6-2 win over 101st-ranked Russian teen Anastasia Potapova in 89 minutes. The World No. 22 from Greece hit 18 winners to 12 for her opponent and converted three of eight break points while saving all four break points that she faced.

The 19-year-old Potapova, a former Wimbledon junior champion, committed 23 unforced errors and six double faults. Sakkari outpointed Potapova 71-55.

“I worked a lot on my serve in, let’s say, the last nine months, since the first lockdown” Sakkari explained during her post-match virtual media chat. “It’s going really well; I have to say. I’m super pleased with the way I’m serving. I’m getting good results inside the court from my serve, good points. Because the surface is quick, it’s important to serve well.”

Indeed, Sakkari fired seven aces, double-faulted just once and won 90 percent (27 of 30) first serve points.

When Tennis TourTalk asked Sakkari if she had set any goals for herself for the week or the season, she said: “Of course, I want to be Top 10. If I cannot make it this year, I’m sure I’m going to make it next year. I just want to be healthy and play as many tournaments as I can.”

In the next round, Sakkari will face either No. 48 Coco Gauff of the United States – at age 16 the youngest player in the tournament – or Norwegian alternate Ulrikke Eikeri, ranked 259th.

• Former World No. 10 Daria Kasatkina of Russia, now ranked 72nd, played like Top 10 player in her opening match of the season. She rallied from a break down in the third set to defeat No. 34 Wang Qiang of China, 6-2, 3-6, 6-2, winning in one hour and 48 minutes.

Kasatkina won the first nine points of the match and controlled the early tempo while compiling 10 winners during the 25-minute opening set. Then, she went on to garner the final six games of the match to achieve her first win of the young season, finishing with 20 winners to 24 unforced errors. Wang hit 24 winners but committed 42 unforced errors.

“The first match after a long stop is never easy,” Kasatkina said after her win. “I was not that nervous but I felt my stomach a little bit. The match was tough, three sets.

“It’s always difficult to come back after the pre-season because you can play very good in practices and beat everyone in practice matches. But then you come to a tournament and it’s a completely different feeling. You have nerves. Everything is different. It’s not easy to manage these things at the beginning of the season.”

• No. 46 Veronika Kudermetova of Russia upset No. 10 seed Anett Kontaveit of Estonia, 7-5, 6-1, in one hour and 28 minutes to advance. The 23rd-ranked Kontaveit, who is now 0-3 lifetime against Kudermetova, struggled with her serve. She committed five double faults and won just 48 percent of her first-serve points. Meanwhile, Kudermetova hit three aces, was broken just once and was successful in winning nearly 65 percent of her second-serve points.

“[Veronika] plays extremely aggressive and her shots are really powerful, which took away a lot of my strengths,” Kontaveit said during her virtual media chat. “She was serving really well, took some risks. I’m disappointed I couldn’t convert some of the break points I had in the first set. After the first set, she started playing even better.”

In other matches involving seeds: No. 13 seed Yulia Putintseva of Kazakhstan beat No. 85 Martina Trevisan of Italy, 6-3, 6-3; and No. 17 seed Ekaterina Alexandrova of Russia defeated Zarina Diyas of Kazakhstan, 6-4, 6-4. Meanwhile, No. 16 seed Donna Vekic of Croatia was upset by No. 62 Bernarda Pera of the United States, 7-6 (10), 2-6, 6-4. Other Wednesday winners include: No. 86 Kirsten Flipkens of Belgium, No. 68 Ajla Tomljanovic of Australia, No. 70 Paula Badosa of Spain, No. 65 Barbora Krejcikova of the Czech Republic and No. 88 Leylah Fernandez of Canada.

Wednesday’s results

What they’re saying

• No. 15 seed Ons Jabeur on her first-round victory over No. 38 Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova: “I have to give credit also to my serve. I’ve been practicing a lot of serves in the pre-season, and I’m trying to go full power, even if sometimes it doesn’t go.”

• No. 34 Wang Qiang after her first-round loss to No. 72 Daria Kasatkina: “I had nine months not playing a tournament. I think I played not bad in this match, especially in the second set. In the final set, I lost my concentration a little bit so she won the match. I look forward to my next match. It’s very good. Me and my coach [Pat Cash] are on the right way.”

Looking ahead to Thursday

Highlighting Thursday’s second day, 10 seeds – including top seed Sofia Kenin, No. 2 Elina Svitolina, No. 3 seed Karolina Pliskova and No. 4 seed Aryna Sabalenka – are in action as well as the season debuts for 11th seed Jennifer Brady and Coco Gauff.