Jabeur Embracing The Clay, Career-Best Ranking

Ons Jabeur (photo: Volvo Car Open/Chris Smith)

CHARLESTON, S.C./WASHINGTON, April 8, 2021 (by Michael Dickens)

Ons Jabeur has been embracing new ground this season where for her, as Tunisia’s best-known women’s tennis player, the sky’s the limit.

This week, Jabeur, who is competing on green clay at the WTA 500 Volvo Car Open in Charleston, S.C., attained a career-best ranking of No. 28. It’s a remarkable achievement for someone who comes from a country that isn’t rich in tennis history and didn’t break into the Top 100 until four years ago. Since then, Jabeur has made a steady climb up the WTA rankings – and she’s not through climbing.

For the past couple of years, Jabeur has been breaking barriers – positive ones – in which she’s become the face of women’s tennis throughout the Arab world. Born in Ksar Hellal, Tunisia, she comes from a small nation (pop. 11.7 million) in the Maghreb region of North Africa bordered by Algeria to the west and southwest, Libya to the southeast, and the Mediterranean Sea to the north and east. Jabeur’s game is refreshing and fun to watch, and like World No. 1 Ashleigh Barty, she’s quite comfortable mixing in plenty of tricky slice, and adroitly-timed and well-placed drop shots. With Jabeur, her mantra seems to be one of always keep the opponent guessing what she will do next.

Last year, Jabeur reached the quarterfinals of a Grand Slam for the first time in her career, at the Australian Open. She became the first Tunisian – man or woman – and the first Arab women to reach the quarterfinal of a Grand Slam. This year, she has played in seven tournaments on the WTA tour, going 12-6. Her best finish came last week at the Miami Open, where she reached the fourth round before losing to Sara Sorribes Tormo following a third-round, three-set victory over World No. 4 Sofia Kenin.

When Jabeur walks out on the court, be it gigantic Arthur Ashe Stadium at the US Open or quaint Court 1 at the LTP-Daniel Island Tennis Center in Charleston, where she beat No. 59 Alizé Cornet of France, 5-7, 6-3, 6-3, to reach the quarterfinals of the Volvo Open Thursday, not only is she representing her country, she’s also representing an entire region. In recent years, the only other Tunisian professional on either the men’s and women’s tour has been 37-year-old ATP Tour veteran Malek Jaziri, who is currently ranked 260th. Jabeur embraces being the highest-ranked Arab woman in tennis history, far surpassing Tunisia’s Selima Sfar, who reached No. 75 in 2001. Fluent in three languages – Arabic, French and English – and learning a fourth, Russian (her husband is former Russian-Tunisian fencer Karim Kamoun, who is also her fitness coach), Jabeur has represented Tunisia in the past two Summer Olympic Games.

“When I’m playing at the Grand Slams or anywhere, I try to show that this is the Arab woman, this is what we are. I don’t see any difference between me, or any European or American woman,” Jabeur said in 2019, when she was recognized at the Arab Women of the Year ceremonies in London for her sporting achievements in tennis. “For me, I’m happy I’m giving this good example and hopefully I can inspire more ladies in any field, to believe in their dreams and achieve their dreams.”

On Wednesday, following her 6-3, 6-3 second-round victory against American wild card Hailey Baptiste, Jabeur sat for a virtual interview with Tennis TourTalk. She presented herself in her typical happy and relaxed manner, and as always, she exuded plenty of warmth in her personality. Here are some of the interview highlights:

On playing on Charleston green clay for the third time (and first since 2018): “I’m enjoying a lot being on clay. I like how slow sometimes it is. It gives me so much time, especially on the returns. I’m honestly enjoying sliding also. It’s feeling great. The drops shots are very good. I love it here.”

On reaching the third round without losing any sets following wins against Martina Trevisan and Baptiste: “There’s a little bit of pressure. [Martina] Trevisan was a little bit tricky. She played very good last year on clay. It was a tricky match. I was trying to get used to the clay here and get my game ready for clay. It’s really different than the [hard court] tournaments. It’s much faster. I’ve used the few days I’ve had on clay to work on my shots.”

On the Miami Open: “It was an okay tournament. It felt good beating [Sofia] Kenin after losing a whole lot of matches against her. That was a positive thing. The match against [Sara] Sorribes Tormo was very tricky. She’s a great player. She doesn’t give you any free balls, so it was kind of tough. I honestly learned from this match.” (Jabeur lost to Sorribes Tormo in the round of 16, 6-4, 0-6, 6-1, following earlier wins against Paula Badosa and Kenin). “Honestly, I could have lost in the first round. Fighting and playing three sets was a good challenge for me.”

On facing Alizé Cornet, her round of 16 opponent in Charleston, whom she now owns a career head-to-head record of 2-0 following a 2019 Eastbourne quarterfinal win on grass and Thursday’s win on green clay: “I like playing Alizé. I like her fighting spirit.”

Beyond Charleston: “I’ll stay one more week in Charleston for the [WTA] 250. I’ll be playing Madrid and Rome and the French Open. Hopefully, we can play the French Open this year.”

On her career-best ranking: “I’m really glad the ranking is moving; much better than before. It’s encouraging for me to win more matches. It was difficult winning a lot matches but nothing is moving. I can’t wait for summer to have a better ranking for myself, to be honest. I’m happy that I’ve moving really slow, but I’m at least I’m moving.”

On recognition in Tunisia: “A lot of people are following me even more thanks to last year, because of last year. People are even happy for me to get my [career-best] ranking. I have a lot of support from Tunisia.”

Around the Volvo Car Open

• No. 11 seed Yulia Putintseva advanced to Friday’s quarterfinals after No. 6 seed Garbiñe Muguruza retired from their third-round match in the second set. Muguruza was leading 6-0, 2-2, when she retired due to a left leg injury.

Muguruza, who entered play Thursday with a WTA-leading 21 victories, was dominant in the first set, breaking Putintseva’s serve three consecutive times en route to a bagel set. However, during the change over following the third game of the second set, Muguruza left the court during a medical time out to receive treatment on her left leg. She returned a short time later, but signaled an end to the match one game later.

“[Garbiñe] was playing really good tennis since the first point. I tried to fight back and do my best,” Putintseva said during an on-court interview. “At least in the second set, at least I fought back and managed to be even. I don’t feel like I deserve to go through. I wish her a speedy recovery; she’s having a great season. I hope she recovers quickly.”

Later, Muguruza said, “I was already feeling some pain in my first match [Tuesday against Magdalena Frech]. Just the switch from hard courts to clay was very tough in a short amount of time.  I started very well [against Putintseva]. Suddenly, I felt a sharp pain in my left leg and it just got worse. I didn’t want to continue without playing my best tennis.” 

After the medical time out, Muguruza said she wanted to give it a chance. “I tried to continue fighting but it just got worse. For now, we’ll assess and rest. That is the key and continue to plan the rest of the clay-court season.”

• Putintseva’s next opponent will be unheralded No. 91 Danka Kovinic of Montenegro, who achieved the biggest win of her career with her 6-4, 6-1 victory over World No. 11 and third seed Petra Kvitova of the Czech Republic. Kvitova is the highest seed to be eliminated thus far.

Kovinic hit 11 winners and 13 unforced errors and took advantage of Kvitova’s 22 unforced errors and breaking the Czech’s serve six times in 13 opportunities. Kovinic, who served two aces, won 86 percent of her first-serve points en route to advancing to Friday’s quarterfinal round.

• No. 14 seed Coco Gauff advanced to play Ons Jabeur in the quarterfinal round after beating fellow American Lauren Davis, 6-2, 7-6 (2). Gauff, who is into her first quarterfinal on clay, hit 14 winners, including three aces, and converted seven of nine break-point opportunities. Davis committed 29 unforced errors.

• No. 15 seed Veronika Kudermetova of Russia easily advanced to the quarterfinals with a 6-0, 6-3 victory over 164th-ranked Japanese qualifier Kurumi Nara in just over an hour. Next, she will play Sloane Stephens of the United States.

• Unseeded Paula Badosa of Spain, ranked 71st, advanced to the quarterfinal round for the second time this season with a 6-3, 6-3 win over No. 118 Caty McNally of the United States. Badosa hit three aces and won 81 percent of her first serves. She broke McNally’s serve five times in 10 opportunities and outpointed the American 63-47. She will face either World No. 1 Ashleigh Barty or 52nd-ranked American Shelby Rogers on Friday.

• American Sloane Stephens reached her first quarterfinal since the 2019 French Open with her 6-3, 6-4 win over No. 78 Ajla Tomljanovic of Australia. It was the sixth straight time the No. 57 Stephens has bested Tomljanovic. Thursday’s win, her third this week in Charleston, improved Stephens’ 2021 win-loss record to 4-5. Next, the 2016 Volvo Car Open champion will play No. 15 seed Veronika Kudermetova of Russia.

• No. 1 doubles seeds Nicole Melichar of the United States and Demi Schuurs of the Netherlands advanced over Ons Jabeur of Tunisia and Anastasia Potapova of Russia, 6-3, 6-2, to move into the weekend’s semifinal round. Melichar and Schuurs, who improved their win-loss record to 13-5 and earlier this year won the title at Doha, won 69 percent of their service points and backed it with four breaks of their opponent’s serve. They outpointed Jabeur and Potapova 53-37.

Marie Bouzkova and Lucie Hradecka, both of the Czech Republic, received a walkover into the semifinals after their quarterfinal opponents, Timea Babos of Hungary and Veronika Kudermetova of Russia were forced to withdraw due to an illness to Babos.

Thursday’s Volvo Car Open results

Friday’s Volvo Car Open order of play

• Later round of 16 matches Thursday include: No. 1 seed Ashleigh Barty of Australia versus Charleston’s Shelby Rogers.

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