Ons Jabeur upsets Sloane Stephens to reach biggest quarter-final of her career in Moscow

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Another big scalp: For Ons Jabeur.

Tunisian qualifier Ons Jabeur reached the first Premier-level quarter-final of her career by taking down world No. 8 Sloane Stephens in straight sets at the Kremlin Cup in Moscow on Wednesday.

It was Jabeur’s third top-10 victory of her career, and second in her last three tournaments, after she beat world No. 1 Simona Halep 6-1, ret. in Beijing earlier this month.

Playing her fifth match in Moscow in as many days, Jabeur knocked out the third-seeded Stephens 6-3, 6-2 in 62 minutes.

The 24-year-old converted four of the six break point opportunities she created against Stephens, winning an impressive 48 per cent of her return points.

Mixing up her powerful groundstrokes with some signature drop shots, Jabeur outplayed the 2017 US Open champion, who committed 24 unforced errors against just 11 winners.

“I’m really happy, especially after many matches I played in here. Moscow is great to me, hopefully I can continue playing this way and maybe do my best in this tournament,” said Jabeur, who finished the contest with 24 winners off of her racquet.

“I want to thank all Tunisians who are here, I’m really happy, it feels like home. Also I want to thank the Russian fans, they’ve been supporting since the beginning of the tournament. I’m trying to learn some Russian now and hopefully by the end of the tournament I’ll be speaking good,” added Jabeur, whose husband and fitness trainer, Karim Kamoun, is half-Russian.

The pair exchanged breaks early in the first set before Jabeur broke again and consolidated for a 4-1 lead. She maintained her advantage and secured a one-set lead in 33 minutes.

Jabeur broke to start the second set and went up a double-break with a brilliant down-the-line winner to edge ahead 5-2. She served out the match in the next game and moved into the last-eight when a forehand from Stephens sailed long.

The Arab No. 1 next takes on recent Wuhan runner-up Anett Kontaveit, who overcame a second-set deficit to defeat Frenchwoman Kristina Mladenovic 6-2, 7-6(3). Jabeur looked in pain during the match against Stephens, as a sudden movement appeared to have caused a problem in her back but the Tunisian is hopeful it is nothing serious.

“I’m going to see after with my physio, but hopefully nothing is serious. Maybe it’s from the fatigue from all the matches I played. It was a sudden move, so hopefully some good stretching will help me feel better for my next match,” she said.

Jabeur, ranked 101 this week, is expected to hit a new career-high ranking following the conclusion of the tournament on Monday. She will rise at least 20 spots.

Meanwhile, Stephens will head straight to Singapore where she will appear in the WTA Finals for the first time. The American has won just two matches in four tournaments since reaching the quarters at the US Open last month.

She booked her ticket to the season finale in Singapore after a decent 2018 that saw her win Miami and reach the finals at the French Open and Montreal.

Later in the day, Elina Svitolina and Karolina Pliskova completed the top-eight field qualified for the WTA Finals in Singapore after the latter and Kiki Bertens both lost their second-round matches in Moscow on Wednesday to Vera Zvonareva and Aliaksandra Sasnovich respectively.

Svitolina and Pliskova join Halep, Angelique Kerber, Naomi Osaka, Caroline Wozniacki, Petra Kvitova and Stephens in the tournament’s final staging in Singapore before it moves to its new home in Shenzhen next year.

With Halep’s participation in question due to her herniated disk injury, Bertens might still end up qualifying if the Romanian withdraws.

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Simona Halep 'proud' of her own consistency to stay on top and reveals her goals for 2019

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Simona Halep is not letting a herniated disk overshadow what has been a dream career-best season for her and she already has her eyes on further success in 2019.

The Romanian secured the 2018 WTA year-end No. 1 ranking presented by Dubai Duty Free for a second straight year, but this time, she has a Grand Slam title under her belt.

Last season, the top spot switched hands seven times before Halep finished the year on top. Entering the 2017 WTA Finals in Singapore, seven of the eight women in the field could have walked away with the No. 1 ranking.

This year has been a different story though. Halep has maintained her position at the summit for the whole year, barring the four weeks she was replaced by Caroline Wozniacki after the Dane won the Australian Open in January.

Halep’s peers are not surprised by her stronghold on the top position this year, and neither is she.

“I’m not surprised because I feel like I played a good level of tennis and I was very consistent. I made two finals at the Grand Slams, I made a few finals, I won two more tournaments, I felt that I was very consistent and very strong, also mentally and physically. I’m not surprised at all, I just want to be happy about what I’ve done and to enjoy the moment because for sure it’s the best one,” said the 27-year-old.

Halep picked up three titles in 2018, in Shenzhen, Roland Garros and Montreal, and she lost three finals at the Australian Open, Rome and Cincinnati. She has won 46 matches and lost 11 and leads the tour in percentage of return games and return points won for the season.

She explains the key to her consistency this year by saying: “To enjoy the time on court and always I was looking for this, for the beautiful moments, having fun all the time at all the tournaments, I was bringing my family most of the time when I wanted, when I needed, I had friends very close to me. I think the life off-court is pretty good and that’s why I feel happy on court and I have energy to keep doing what I’m doing every day.”

Last year, Halep missed out on clinching the No. 1 ranking when she lost the French Open final to Jelena Ostapenko. She had another opportunity slip past her when she lost to Johanna Konta in the Wimbledon quarter-finals, then again when she fell to Garbine Muguruza in the Cincinnati final. She eventually rose to the top for the first time in Beijing on October 9, 2017.

She’s held onto it since, with the exception of the aforementioned four weeks.

Asked which was tougher, getting to No. 1 or staying there, Halep said: “Both of them because I had many tries to get to No. 1. It was really tough mentally to stay there and to keep believing it was going to happen one day. But then when I touched it, it was really tough to keep it because the pressure is like every tournament, every week you’re thinking about No.1 – actually me personally I didn’t think that much but people around me were talking a lot and it’s impossible to just stop hearing them. And then you have to be at your highest level every week to be able to keep the No. 1 place. I think did it pretty well and I will take both things at the same level of difficulty.”

On Monday, Halep began her 50th week at the top of the world rankings, which means she has spent more time as No. 1 than players like Maria Sharapova (21 weeks), Amelie Mauresmo (39 weeks), and Kim Clijsters (20).

“It means a lot because as I was growing up, these girls were my idols and were my models for the future, to be like them or to try to be like them, they inspired me all the time. So to be there it means a lot and gives me a special thought about it and gives me confidence that I was able to do something huge in tennis and it makes me proud to be honest,” says Halep of eclipsing such stars of the game in that category.

Looking ahead to next year, one would think that scooping more majors would be on top of Halep’s priority list but her main goals are a bit different than the typical bucket list.

“For the next year, I would love to win Rome because I have already two finals there and it’s one of my favourite cities. So I really wish I will be able to win it and of course to win as much as possible in Fed Cup. Those are my two goals for next year,” asserts Halep.

With her participation at next week’s WTA Finals hanging in the balance, Halep is still hoping she can make it. If she does, she’d be the only player to qualify and compete at all five editions of the season finale staged in Singapore, before the event moves on to its next home in Shenzhen in 2019.

“I’m really proud and it’s amazing I could do this. I really hope to be able to play this year also. It’s amazing I could qualify for Singapore all five years. Actually when I first came to Singapore in 2014 my brother told me, ‘if you’ll be these five years in Singapore, you can retire’. It’s pretty amazing. I won’t retire but I will keep this as one of the best things that happened to me in tennis,” she says.

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Simona Halep secures year-end No. 1 ranking, admits Singapore is a doubt

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Simona Halep has secured the 2018 WTA year-end No. 1 ranking presented by Dubai Duty Free but her season could still end on a sour note as the Romanian admits her back injury could keep her out of next week’s big finale in Singapore.

Halep suffered a back problem during a practice session with Petra Kvitova in Wuhan last month and after losing her opener to Dominika Cibulkova there, and retiring while down a set to Ons Jabeur in Beijing, the world No. 1 found out that she is suffering from a herniated disk.

Following nearly two weeks of rehab, and going through 90 minutes of specific lower back exercises each day to strengthen the area around the injury, Halep is now in Moscow where she is the top seed at the Kremlin Cup, hoping to test out her back ahead of the WTA Finals in Singapore.

Halep initially entered Moscow as a way to be better prepared for the WTA Finals. She is the only player to qualify for all five editions of the season finale in Singapore but she only made it out of the group stages once, on her debut back in 2014.

She thought matches in Moscow would give her a better build-up for Singapore but now that she’s injured, her participation in both tournaments is in serious doubt.

“I still have problems with my back but I worked really hard the last two weeks, since Beijing, to make it stronger and to actually keep this problem because it’s really tough. I haven’t practiced 100 per cent yet, but today and tomorrow I will do close to 100 and I will be able to know better the next day,” Halep told a small group of journalists during a conference call from Moscow on Sunday.

“The doctor told me that there’s nothing about surgery but if I keep playing there’s a risk of long-term injury, so I don’t need that and I don’t want that, and I have to make a good decision in the next days.

“I hope first to be able to play here [in Moscow] because I really want to, because I’ve been here already for three, four days, getting ready for this tournament. I have great memories and I would really love to play here. But if I’m not able to play here then I’m very doubtful that I’ll be able to play Singapore because it’s very fast [too soon], so I don’t know now. But for sure I’ll take a decision for my health first.”

Halep says the physiotherapy and lower back exercises she’s been doing have helped but it still has been difficult for her on court. ,

“I worked really hard, I feel better but during play, during the game it’s tough because you cannot control every movement so it makes it more difficult.

“At this stage, if it stays like this, I don’t need surgery. I don’t know if it’s going to be worse if I keep playing this month, I don’t know that and they don’t know that. So I have to keep an eye on it and taking care of it.”


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While other players on both the women’s and men’s tours – like Maria Sharapova, Andy Murray, Serena Williams and others – have pulled the plug early on their seasons to be better prepared for next year, Halep is reluctant to do the same and insists on giving herself every possible chance to compete in her last two events.

“It’s been very stressful and I was worried every day because I was waiting to see how I feel, every morning I wake up,” she concedes.

“So it’s pretty stressful but somehow it’s normal because injuries are pretty normal when you play at this level, at the highest level. So I try just to keep myself calm and be positive. I know it’s not an easy injury, the back is always difficult but I have to accept it and to look forward.”

Asked why she feels the need to keep trying, and potentially risking further injury, when she’s already had a fantastic season and has secured the year-end ranking, Halep said: “Because I never gave up until I felt that I touched the limit. I like to give myself another chance every day. I realise how bad it is everyday and I’m trying just to keep the limit there, to be able to know it, to feel it.

“I’m here because I really want to keep playing, I like these tournaments. I’m in the best position for sure, I’m the No. 1 for the rest of the year, I won a Grand Slam, I don’t have reasons to keep playing but it’s just my feeling that I don’t want to give up. But for sure, the priority is my health so I’m going to do the best decision for sure.”

Halep, who starts her 50th week as the world No. 1 on Monday, has been one of the most consistent players on tour for the past few seasons. It something that has particularly helped her this year as she managed to stay clear of the chasing pack behind her in the rankings. But that consistency has come at a cost and she admits she finds it hard sustaining a high level during the closing stages of the season.

“It’s really difficult and I feel it every year and I feel it more and more. I give everything I have the first part of the year and then Asia is a bit difficult for me to play and then Singapore, because it’s the last tournament. So my goal for the next years is to be better in this position, if I’m able to qualify once again for the Finals, I want just to be better and ready to play that tournament,” said the 27-year-old.

“I think mentally I just have no more energy and also sometimes I‘m injured at this time of the year. I don’t know why but I think everyone feels a little bit empty when we get to this point.”

Could a revised schedule possibly help her avoid running out of steam at the end of the year?

“Well, I played 15 tournaments this year so less than this is really impossible. I didn’t play many tournaments, but I played many matches and tough matches. Melbourne was incredible and I was struggling after that for a few weeks. So I would take this year, 100 per cent, it doesn’t matter if I’m tired at the end of the year,” she says.

* Simona Halep has secured the 2018 WTA year-end No. 1 ranking presented by Dubai Duty Free for a second consecutive season. She is also a Dubai Duty Free ambassador.

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