Ons On Fire: Jabeur Sets Rematch Against Kovinic

Ons Jabeur (photo: MUSC Health Women’s Open/Chris Smith)

CHARLESTON, S.C./WASHINGTON, April 17, 2021 (by Michael Dickens)

As the quarterfinal round of the MUSC Health Women’s Open unfolded in Charleston, S.C., Friday afternoon, one couldn’t help but notice the contrast in the two halves of the singles draw. At the top were four competitors all ranked in the Top 100, while all four in the bottom half were outside the Top 100 – although one, Clara Tauson at No. 101, had previously tasted what it’s like to be inside of the magic mark.

Now that the pairings are set going into Saturday’s semifinals, which will include a rematch of one of last week’s Volvo Car Open semifinals, between No. 1 seed Ons Jabeur and finalist Danka Kovinic, plus an unexpected matchup of a teen titlist and a former collegiate champion, here’s how they arrived at the final four:

Kovinic takes out last American Rogers

The 65th-ranked Kovinic, a finalist in last week’s WTA 500 Volvo Car Open, needed just an hour and 11 minutes to sweep aside No. 46 Shelby Rogers, 7-5, 6-1. The South Carolina native was the last remaining of a tournament-leading 12 Americans in the draw. While Rogers advanced with a pair of straight-set victories over fellow Americans Caty McNally and Claire Liu – losing just five games – to reach her fifth WTA quarterfinal since the tour’s restart last August, she was no match for Kovinic. The Montenegro native served five aces and won 72 percent of her first-serve points. Also, she broke Rogers’ serve five times in eight opportunities and outpointed her 59-39, holding the American to just 10 points in the second set. “I didn’t give her any free points,” Kovinic said.

“I’m not thinking about the next match right now because I just finished this one,” Kovinic added during her virtual press conference when asked about facing Jabeur in consecutive semifinal matches. “I would happy to play [again] against Ons. Hopefully, she’ll play less drop shots than the last match! I think it will give me some confidence knowing that I beat her last week here on the same court.”

Rogers’ WTA quarterfinal mark dropped to 4-8 (2-4 on clay). An abdominal strain was as much of a concern for the American as Kovinic was and she said it affected her serve. Rogers placed just 40 percent of her first serves in play and won only 60 percent of her first-serve points. “Take nothing away, [Danka] played great today,” Rogers admitted in press. “She’s playing super confident. She definitely deserves to be in the next round.”

Tennis TourTalk asked Kovinic how valuable it was having a day off before she faced Rogers in the quarterfinals, her ninth match in two weeks in Charleston. “Definitely, it helped a lot. Mostly, mentally,” she said. “Playing day after day, it’s difficult to stay mentally focused. The day off [after beating Lauren Davis] was really good for myself and for my body to recover.”

Of note, Kovinic’s eight wins on clay is the most on tour. Her 10 victories this season exceeds her 2020 total of nine. A week ago, Kovinic beat Jabeur, 6-3, 6-2, by taking advantage of four service breaks from four looks.

Jabeur dominates Hibino

Meanwhile, Jabeur came in as the No. 1 seed with a career-best ranking of No. 27. She’s hit 115 aces this season, third-most on tour. Jabeur dropped just five points during the second set of her 6-4, 6-0 win over 313th-ranked American qualifier Alycia Parks during Thursday’s second round. Following her 6-0, 6-1 domination of Japan’s Nao Hibino in Friday’s quarterfinals, her 17 match wins is third-best on tour. She’s the only seeded player remaining in the tournament.

The 88th-ranked Hibino came in bidding for her first Top 50 win since Strasbourg last year, when she upset Sloane Stephens and Jelena Ostapenko, but Jabeur was full of determination in the second semifinal. Hibino did not hold serve until her last service game, down 6-0, 5-0 to the Tunisian. Jabeur won on her first match point opportunity with a solid forehand winner.

Jabeur hit three aces, won all but six of her first serves, saved the only break point she faced and broke Hibino five times. She outpointed Hibino 57-29 by playing her usual, fun variety of tennis featuring plenty of drop shots and slice backhands.

When Jabeur, who has played more confidently this week than last week, was asked by Tennis TourTalk if she was surprised by how well she dominated her opponent, she said: “Not really. It was the main goal for me today to be more aggressive and be dominant on the court. I tried to use my forehand as much as I could. That was the plan for me today. Obviously, it worked pretty well. I’m very pleased with how I played this match.”

Osorio Serrano advances by retirement

The third quarterfinal of the day – a very much anticipated one – matching a pair of very talented teenagers, Denmark’s 18-year-old Clara Tauson and 19-year-old Maria Camila Osorio Serrano of Colombia, never really materialized because Tauson was forced to retire with a left knee injury. That’s the same knee she bruised on the green clay during her first-round win against Liudmila Samsonova Monday and since had played with it heavily taped.

Osorio Serrano won the 45-minute opening set 6-4. She fought from the beginning and quickly led 4-1, before Tauson clawed her way back to win the next three games and level the set. However, Osorio Serrano closed out the set with a hold and a service break. Then, she led 1-0 when Tauson ended the match filled with tears in her eyes as she walked to the net, unable to continue.

After the first set, Tauson received a medical time out to get her left knee examined and the bandages protecting it reinforced. However, it proved to be too painful for her to continue after trying to for just one game. Showing sportsmanship at its finest, Osorio Serrano did her best to console her formidable opponent at the net. Later, she gave Tauson a hug after the Dane sat down at her bench. The two have been friends since their junior days and, somehow, Osorio Serrano managed to get Tauson to break a smile for a moment.

“I know how she’s feeling right now; I know she wanted to play so bad like me,” Osorio Serrano said during her on-court interview. “We were so excited to play this match, but I’m so sorry it had to finish like this. I hope she recovers fast. I want to cry because I feel so bad for her. It’s never happened to me.”

Later, during her virtual press conference, Osorio Serrano told Tennis TourTalk, “I was just so shocked. It’s never happened to me before somebody retiring. It was really strange for me. I didn’t know what to say [to her]. I’m just so sorry it had to finish like that. I’m friends with her and I know it’s tough to be injured and not to be able to play. It was so sad to see her crying. Hopefully, she can recover soon.”

This week marked Tauson’s fourth Tour-level clay court main draw, following 2019 Lugano, 2020 Roland Garros and 2021 Bogotá. Her win on Wednesday against Ajla Tomljanovic was her sixth Top 100 win and like her title run early last month in Lyon, Tauson had played with a lot of poise and determination.

Meanwhile, Charleston is just the fifth WTA main draw Osorio Serrano. Her first-round win over No. 51 Magna Linette represented her best career win in terms of ranking. Coming in ranked a career-high No. 135 after beginning the season ranked 186th, the Colombian is the eighth highest-ranked teenager on the WTA tour.

“I’ll say I’m happy to be in the semifinals but not this way,” Osorio Serrano admitted.

Sharma ends Fruhvirtova’s surprising run

Playing in her fifth tour-level event of 2021, 165th-ranked Astra Sharma ended the surprising run of 15-year-old Czech rising teen star Linda Fruhvirtova, 6-4, 6-3, in one hour and 25 minutes. The Singapore-born Australian and graduate of Vanderbilt University in the United States benefited from six break-point conversions and 14 double faults by Fruhvirtova.

Less than a day after she recovered from 4-1 down in the final set to beat No. 8 seed Madison Brengle, Sharma advanced to only her third WTA quarterfinal of her career, following 2019 Bogotá and 2021 Guadalajara. She also competed this week in the doubles draw with Naomi Broady of Great Britain, reaching the quarterfinals before losing.

After her Thursday evening win against Brengle, Sharma said of Fruhvirtova: “I’ve watched her play; she’s a really good player. I don’t think ranking means very much. She’s an up-and-coming player. She has nothing to lose and has had a really good tournament. I’m fully respectful of that. At the same time, I’m ready to compete. I don’t think I’ll get any freebies. I hope to rise to the challenge.”

Sharma did just that. She came in full of energy and attributed it to her off-season training due diligence. Of particular note, Sharma won 78 percent of her second-serve return points and outpointed Fruhvirtova 65-56. The double faults, it turned out, were a difference maker.

Fruhvirtova, playing in just her second WTA main draw of her young career following Prague last year, was the lowest-ranked player in the Charleston draw at the start. Now, that distinction rests with Sharma.

When Sharma was asked by a reporter what has been the key to her success this week, she said: “I think I’ve just kept it in a way very simple. I really try to push the opponents around and I’ve always used this well in a defensive way. This week, I’ve tried to use it more offensively. I think it’s been paying some dividends.”

Now, having beaten one teen, Fruhvirtova, Sharma gets to play another one in the semifinals in Osorio Serrano. Tennis TourTalk asked her about this. “I honestly don’t really look at the age [of the player]. Look at Linda, she’s an amazing player who looks like she was born to hold a racquet her whole life,” Sharma said. “Same with Maria. She just came off a really good win in Bogotá. She’s been backing it up here in Charleston against really quality opponents. I don’t think age has anything to do with it. In fact, she may be fresher than me; she has younger legs. I’m really looking forward to playing her tomorrow. She’s been playing really well. I think it will be a really good challenge to see how I match up against her.”

Friday’s MUSC Health Women’s Open results

Saturday’s MUSC Health Women’s Open order of play

Around the MUSC Health Women’s Open

By the numbers

What they’re saying

• After playing more than four hours combined in both singles and doubles on Thursday, Australia’s Astra Sharma met briefly with press after coming off the doubles court, where she and Naomi Broady of Great Britain lost their quarterfinal match 6-3, 5-7, 10-6 to Elixane Lechemia of France and Ingrid Neel of the United States. Earlier Sharma had reached the singles quarterfinal witha 6-4, 4-6, 7-5 win over No, 8 seed Madison Brengle, after coming back from 1-4 down in the final set.

Asked how Sharma felt mentally and physically after her long Thursday at the LTP-Daniel Island Tennis Club, she said: “I feel good. Obviously, a little bit tired. It’s past my bedtime, but I’m sure a good night’s sleep and I’ll be okay.”

Sharma is a former collegiate standout at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tenn., where she honed her doubles game, rising to No. 1 in the NCAA rankings in 2017. “I really enjoy doubles. It’s a great way to develop as a player. I think a lot of the skills you use on the doubles court help you in singles. Any time you’re on a court at this level, that’s match experience, that’s more practice against top players. If you can gain confidence in one arena, it’s translates over to the other.”

Sharma credits playing soccer when she was younger with her overall fitness, coordination and speed. “My movement is one of my best strengths. Playing [soccer] really helped me.”

Linda Fruhvirtova comes from a country rich in women’s tennis history that began with Martina Navratilova (before she became a U.S. citizen) and Hana Mandlikova and currently includes Petra Kvitova and Karolina Pliskova, perennially Top 10 players. Tennis TourTalk asked Fruhvirtova after her second-round win about whom she’s looked up to or idolized growing up. “Most of the Czechs are big fighters, they give it all on the court. Kvitova has won Wimbledon twice and is a really nice person and a great player.”

What they’re telling Tennis TourTalk

No. 1 seed Ons Jabeur on if there’s a benefit of playing short matches, such as she did in Friday’s 45-minute quarterfinal win over Nao Hibino: “It depends. Physically, it’s good to spend less time on the court – obviously – than it is to play three sets on a clay court. It helps a lot and I hope it will help me be more ready for [Saturday]. I haven’t had many difficult situations in my matches this week. I’ll continue to play my game – and to try to enjoy it, too. That’s the key for me to play good.”

What they’re sharing on social media