Jabeur Gains Revenge, Reaches Charleston Final

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

CHARLESTON, S.C./WASHINGTON, April 18, 2021 (by Michael Dickens)

Tunisia’s Ons Jabeur has only reached one final in her WTA career, three years ago in Moscow. So, she can be forgiven for doing whatever it takes to get back into a title match. She’s shown plenty of character, grit and determination during her Charleston fortnight, first in last week’s WTA 500 Volvo Car Open and this week in the 250-series MUSC Health Women’s Open, both on the LTP-Daniel Island green clay.

Saturday afternoon, the No. 1 seed Jabeur got revenge on 65th-ranked Danka Kovinic of Montenegro, who knocked the Tunisian out of last week’s Volvo Car Open semifinals in straight sets. This time, it was Jabeur who won 6-3, 6-0 in 87 minutes with a variety of forehand and backhand winners mixed with slice and her effective – and always surprising – drop shots. Next, she will face No. 165 Astra Sharma of Australia in Sunday afternoon’s final.

Sharma ended the remarkable two-week run of 135th-ranked Maria Camila Osorio Serrano of Colombia, 7-6 (5), 6-1, to reach her second career final. The loss ended Osorio Serrano’s delightful eight-match winning streak on clay, which included her first WTA title a week ago in Bogotá, Colombia.

The first semifinal, between Jabeur and Kovinic, was the second meeting of the same players who met on the same court in the semifinal round of the Volvo Car Open a week ago with the Montenegrin prevailing 6-3, 6-2 over a somewhat listless Jabeur. Since then, Jabeur has played like someone with something to prove.

“Hopefully, she will play a little bit less drop shots,” Kovinic said, in a laughing mood, Friday after she won her quarterfinal match over 46th-ranked American Shelby Rogers to advance to her fifth career semifinal. “In the last match, it was way too much. I think definitely [it will give] me some confidence, knowing that I beat her last week here on the same court.”

Jabeur, 26, who is off to a 18-7 start, which places her three victories behind Garbiñe Muguruza‘s 21, attained her 18th win against Kovinic, which pushed her ahead of Veronika Kudermetova‘s 17 and into second place. She’s also third on the WTA tour in service aces with 116, behind Kudermetova’s 130 and Ashleigh Barty with 127. Her career-high ranking of No. 27 reflects her goal-setting mindset.

Jabeur came into her fourth career semifinal having won 18 of her last 19 games and making quick time on court. “I’m definitely going for my revenge,” she said in press on Friday after beating Nao Hibino 6-0, 6-1. “I’m going to really play like I never played before. I really want this win. I will be brave and not let the stress play the match for me.”

Long rallies didn’t always favor Jabeur, but she won anyhow

The first set was characterized by a series of long games, but Jabeur broke ahead early with three consecutive breaks of Kovinic’s serve to take a double-break lead of 4-1. Initially, the only game she surrendered was a break of her own serve in her second service game. Jabeur unleashed her arsenal of drop shots and backhand slice to complement her blistering forehand. Kovinic didn’t play badly; Jabeur just played better at the critical moments.

Jabeur held for a 5-1 lead thanks to effectively placing a drop shot winner right at the net. Then, two games later, Jabeur was unable to converted on any of nine set point opportunities during a 28-point game that lasted 15 minutes and was finally won by Kovinic after Jabeur hit a wide return. However, Jabeur broke back, converting on her 10th set point in the ensuing game, as she hit a backhand winner to garner the set 6-3 after 55 minutes.

“To be honest, I regret only one set point, the easy one that I missed,” Jabeur told Tennis TourTalk during her post-match virtual press conference. “She didn’t give me any free points. It was a tough game for both. I’m glad I responded well for the next game.”

Familiar opponents, both Jabeur and Kovinic shared a warm embrace at the net after all was said and done. The Tunisian’s reward after she left Althea Gibson Club Court was a hug from her husband, who took her racquet bag off her shoulder and put it on his. They walked away together, both happy and smiling.

Even if Jabeur didn’t feel 100 percent, she was 100 percent dangerous on the court. “I was really ready [today]. I wanted to get my revenge back,” she said during her on-court interview after her victory. “She played unbelievable. She didn’t give me any free points. I’m glad I got the win and I’m glad I’m playing this way.

“I really enjoy playing here. I hope I can play as long as I can.”

Asked what was her most dangerous part of her game against Kovinic today, Jabeur said: “I think I had a clear goal in my head. I wanted to win this match. I wanted to play my best game. I didn’t overdo my drop shots. That’s why when I did hit the drop shot, it was perfect timing. It was really good, really surprising, not like she was waiting for it. I played my game, played aggressive. That’s why I was good today.”

Just how much would winning a title mean to her? Jabeur said: “A lot. I would do everything – even play better than today – to get this title. It would be a lot to win this trophy. I will do my best.”

Sharma wears down Osorio Serrano with physicality

In the second semifinal, the 25-year-old Sharma overcame a 4-2 deficit by breaking Osorio Serrano in the seventh game, consolidated the break, and, then, pulled out a 12-point tie break 7-5 with a break of her opponent on her first set-point opportunity. Down 5-6 and serving to get the first set to a tie break, Sharma saved four set points. Then, in the tie break, she converted her only set point at 6-5 after Osorio Serrano netted a forehand return.

“In the tie break, I thought I did a good job, holding my nerve, weathering the storm of her good shots,” Sharma said. “I though she’s such a clean ball-striker, a such a tough opponent that I was mentally prepared for her to hit those. I tried my best to beat her with my physicality, wear her down.”

Then, in the second set, Sharma broke Ocosio Serrano with a forehand winner to go ahead 3-1 and broke the Colombian’s serve again two games later. Each time, the Aussie consolidated the break of her opponent’s serve with service holds of her own. Soon, serving for the match, Sharma closed out the victory with a love hold to win in one hour and 25 minutes. She outpointed Osorio Serrano 72-59. By the end, it was Sharma who was still full of energy while her opponent simply had run out of gas.

“Clay is such a physical surface,” Sharma said. “I’ve tried to use that, really, to make girls beat me. I’m just going to show up every point and hit it as hard as I can. If you can beat me over three sets, then too good.”

Instead, Sharma got the job done in two sets against Osorio Serrano, who remained upbeat after her first loss on clay in the past two weeks. “I want to go back home and see my family and celebrate with them,” Osorio Serrano said during her virtual press conference. “These two weeks so many people have been following my results, people who don’t know a lot about tennis, it’s been super nice and I feel all their support. This week, I played great matches against great players and I got good results. [Making the] semifinals is a really good result.”

Meanwhile, Sharma smiled and flashed a thumbs up gesture at the court side camera as she came off the court, truly feeling like a winner. Now, both she and Jabeur will meet Sunday afternoon in their second WTA final – an each has their eyes on the prize: winning their very first WTA singles title.

“I watched [Ons] a little bit today,” Sharma said. “She’s obviously playing really well. I’m really excited. I’ve never played her. I can’t wait to get out there. I’m playing really well and it will be fun to match up and see how I go.”

Around the MUSC Health Women’s Open

The all-American team of Caty McNally and Hailey Baptiste reached Sunday’s doubles final with a 6-0, 6-2 over Elixane Lechemia of France and Ingrid Neel of the United States. On Sunday, they will face No. 1 seeds Ellen Perez and Storm Sanders, both of Australia.

What they’re telling Tennis TourTalk

Maria Camila Osorio Serrano, 19, on what she will remember from the past two weeks, which included winning her first WTA title in Bogotá last Sunday and reaching the Charleston semifinals this week, and what she’s learned about herself: “It’s been a really good two weeks. I’m happy for what I did. I’m pretty tired, but I feel like I did really good things these two weeks and learned a lot. Of course, I have to work I harder now and keep working on some things. That’s good that I still have things to work on. Imagine if not! I’m happy I learned a lot this week and I enjoyed playing my tennis. I guess I showed the world that I can play.”