Elina Svitolina‘s bid for an unprecedented three-peat in Dubai looked in danger early in her opening set against Ons Jabeur on Tuesday but the Ukrainian weathered the storm and advanced to the third round when her opponent retired with a shoulder injury.
Jabeur led 4-1 in the first set and looked comfortable against the two-time defending champion before Svitolina took four games in a row to lead 5-4. Serving for the set, Svitolina was broken by Jabeur, who took a bad tumble in that game when approaching the net to hit a drop shot.
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The Tunisian world No. 56 still managed to hold and forced a tiebreak. Jabeur saved four set points, the last of which saw her fire a stunning one-handed backhand pass late in the breaker. Svitolina was unfazed though and wrapped up the opening set on her fifth opportunity.
Jabeur had taken a medical timeout at 5-5 for a right shoulder problem and was forced to retire down 0-4 in the second set.
“I felt it at the beginning of the match, just finishing the warm-up. I went to grab the racquet then I felt something blocking in the shoulder. I thought if I continue playing maybe the pain would go away. But then it was getting worse and worse and sometimes I was losing some energy. You could see that I wasn’t moving very good,” Jabeur said of her shoulder injury after the match.
“The high balls for the forehand they were bothering me a lot. I was not missing yesterday and today I was missing a lot.
“I don’t even know how I fell actually, it was so weird. I don’t think I fell on the shoulder. I don’t know if it made it worse or not. My ankle is good, so that’s important. I have a few bruises but it’s okay.”
Jabeur and Svitolina go way back and they actually faced off in the French Open junior final in 2010, which the Ukrainian won. Their most recent meeting prior to Dubai was a tough third-set tiebreak victory for Svitolina in Taipei in 2017, where Jabeur held four match points but couldn’t convert.
On Tuesday, Jabeur had the right game plan to trouble Svitolina and the North African admits it’s a bit frustrating she wasn’t able to pull off the upset.
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“I’m still a little bit angry about it because I was playing really well, I was showing good shots during the game. I was kind of playing my best tennis, I handled the first set well. But it’s frustrating to have these kind of injuries. I was playing like 30 or 20 per cent of my tennis, yet still I was very close,” said the 24-year-old Jabeur.
“I was worried [about the shoulder] just after the match but since the pain was going away slowly I thought that’s a good sign. I’ll see if I’ll do an MRI tomorrow or not. I haven’t rested for three weeks now. I was playing non-stop from Fed Cup, so maybe it’s a little bit of fatigue. Playing doubles late in Doha, sleeping late every night, and then coming straightaway to play here. Tough match yesterday, so maybe it was also that.”
Jabeur, who is the highest-ranked Arab in tennis history, is expected to rise to a career-high 52 in the world on Monday, which will leave her on the brink of the top-50. The 2011 Roland Garros junior champion had a lot of Tunisians supporting her in the stands here in Dubai and says it’s always a special feeling for her playing in the Emirates.
“It’s always nice to be here in Dubai, I think I play well every time I’m here,” she added. “I’m improving my ranking now, I’m getting there. I know I can beat any top player. I was very close today I think. I’m happy with my level and I’m happy with the way I’m improving mentally. Hopefully I can be stronger next time.”
On what positives she takes from her campaign here this year, Jabeur said: “Let’s say like now I improved the ranking and that’s the positive thing from this tournament.”
— Elina Svitolina (@ElinaSvitolina) February 19, 2019
Meanwhile, Svitolina says the prospect of becoming the first woman to win three titles in a row in Dubai is spurring her on this week.
“This is a big motivation for me here. Today I didn’t really feel like in a match mood. I don’t know why. Was a bit struggling. In the end, we could say I had a very slow start. Hopefully, yeah, tomorrow will be better,” said Svitolina.
“But definitely it’s a big motivation for me. When I was 0-2 down, I told myself, ‘Come on, you are here to make history of the tournament’.”
Her third round opponent will be two-time Grand Slam champion Garbine Muguruza, who trails Svitolina 3-4 head-to-head.
Ons Jabeur on Naomi Osaka:
— Reem Abulleil (@ReemAbulleil) February 19, 2019
Novak Djokovic reflected on the “life lessons” he has learned in the last 12 months after his resurgence saw him crowned the Sportsman of the Year at the Laureus World Sports Awards in Monaco.
The Serbian was convalescing from elbow surgery a year ago and his subsequent struggles on his return to the ATP Tour a couple of months later left many fearing he was in terminal decline.
But Djokovic wiped out any doubts in the second half of last year by winning Wimbledon and the US Open en route to reclaiming top spot back in the rankings.
He has since added a record seventh Australian Open title to move to 15 grand slams, and his 2018 achievements saw him honoured in the principality for the fourth time in his career, pipping fellow nominees Lewis Hamilton, LeBron James, Kylian Mbappe, Luka Modric and Eliud Kipchoge to one of the evening’s top prizes.
Djokovic said: “Twelve months ago I was on the surgery table so I hope that was the last surgery that I ever have.
“But at the same time I’m really pleased with how the surgery went because it allowed me to be – five weeks after the surgery – back on the court.
“I was very anxious to be back on the court to compete, and very impatient, because I was not ready emotionally and my game was not there and not even close.
“But in my mind knowing what I’m capable of and the quality of my tennis I felt like it’s not going to take much time for me to get there. That’s where I had the reality check.
“Then for several months I was experiencing some really challenging and difficult months mentally on the court where I was questioning everything and really doubting as well.
“There were many, many life lessons that I’ve learned along the way in the last 12 months and to be able to be recognised for that was a privilege and an honour.”
Djokovic admitted there were moments when he was at his lowest where he would sometimes lash out at either himself or those around him.
Having ended a two-year wait for a grand slam win at SW19, Djokovic believes he had to attempt to find satisfaction from within.
He added: “Probably one of the biggest takes I’ve had in the last couple of years is that it really does depend only on me: whether I’m going to take these challenging situations and obstacles as an opportunity to grow, to rise, to get better or let them defeat me.
“That kind of a mindset was very helpful in the moments where I really needed that strength. I had to find it inside rather than outside.
“I didn’t know that a couple of years ago, I was looking for things outside and maybe blaming people around me or blaming myself and not really understanding that things are as they should be and you just have to learn.
“There’s a learning curve of life and you have to embrace it and accept it.”
Simone Biles scooped her second statuette after becoming the first female to win four world gymnastics titles in the all-around discipline in Doha last November.
The American overcome Simona Halep, Angelique Kerber, Ester Ledecka, Mikaela Shiffrin and Daniela Ryf to earn Sportswoman of the Year.
Elsewhere at the ceremony, Naomi Osaka won the Breakthrough award following her maiden grand slam victory at the US Open, Tiger Woods claimed the Comeback prize after winning his first PGA Tour title in five years, while France’s World Cup winners saw them scoop the Team accolade.
Former Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger received the Lifetime Achievement Award following his revolutionary 22 years with the Gunners.
– The Laureus World Sports Awards celebrate the most remarkable men and women from the world of sport along with their achievements from the previous calendar year. The Awards also showcase the work of Laureus Sport for Good, a charity which uses the power of sport to end violence, discrimination and disadvantage.
Ons Jabeur would love to become the ‘Naomi Osaka of Africa’ as the Tunisian hopes to inspire a young generation of Arab and African players to follow in her footsteps, the same way the Japanese world No. 1 is making waves for Asian tennis.
Jabeur, who upset world No. 25 Donna Vekic 6-4, 7-6(9) on Monday to set up a Dubai second round against No. 6 seed Elina Svitolina on Tuesday, is the highest ranked Arab woman in history, currently standing at 56 in the world.
She became the first Arab female to win a junior Grand Slam title when she lifted the girls’ singles trophy at Roland Garros in 2011, and later became the first Arab woman to reach the third round of a major, thanks to her exploits at the French Open in 2017.
Last October in Moscow, the 24-year-old from Sousse made history for the region once again, when she became the first Arab woman to feature in a final of a WTA tournament.
Jabeur is the only Arab woman ranked in the top-400, and is just the second to ever crack the top-100, after her compatriot Selima Sfar, who peaked at No. 75 in the world back in 2001.
With 21-year-old Naomi Osaka currently blazing a trail as Asia’s first-ever world No. 1, Jabeur was asked if she hopes to serve as a beacon for Africa in a similar manner.
“I’m now the Naomi Osaka of Africa?” asked Jabeur with a laugh, following her first round success over Vekic.
“Yeah, it’s inspiring to see how players can inspire a country or a continent. For me, I’m really happy to represent Tunisia. I’m trying to give my best, to behave good on the court, to try to give good example for the young generation who want to achieve what I’m doing right now.
“I’m trying to send a message that it’s not impossible. You have to work hard. Why not? I want to see a lot of players from Tunisia to be here one day. It’s one of my dreams.”
Jabeur and Osaka both played the WTA Rising Stars event in Singapore in 2015. While they are both known for their sense of humour, Jabeur is far more outgoing than the typically shy Osaka, who had told reporters in Beijing last October that she was grateful for Jabeur’s funny interactions with her back then, especially considering how introverted she was.
“For me, the Singapore is Ons,” Osaka said with a laugh, reflecting on that 2015 event.
Jabeur said of Osaka: “I joke with everyone. She was so shy. She still is. She respects me. I love that about any player. When I see someone shy, I don’t leave them alone, that’s me.
“Even now, I’m still joking with her, with her fitness coach. I’m arm-wrestling with him because he’s like this, ‘Do you see these muscles?’
“She’s very nice, family also very nice. I wish they could win more Grand Slams. Leave some for me, but hopefully I can be there one time.”
Despite her match being scheduled at 11:00am on a Monday in Dubai, there was a loud group of Tunisian supporters in the stands cheering on Jabeur.
“I always say Tunisians are everywhere. In Japan one time, I won there, there were some Tunisians,” she said with a chuckle.
Jabeur’s journey to where she is right now, on the brink of the top-50, has been an arduous one, mainly due to the fact that she barely had any role models from the region to guide her. She hopes to become that person for others in the Arab world, to aid them in finding the right path to success on the professional tennis tour.
“To find someone who can guide you to the top level – because it’s really tough to be here – I think it’s the most important thing,” she explained.
“That’s why I want to share my experience. I want to, like, give this to the kids who don’t have to go through what I went through, so I can save them some time or I can share my experience. It’s going to be really helpful.
“Either in Tunisia or Africa, I’m really happy to do it. I hope after my career I can help this young generation. Now I’m trying to do a little bit. I’m 24, but when we played Fed Cup in Luxembourg, it was fun. There were two girls younger than me. I felt like a leader there, and I loved it. It was nice to give advice to these young girls.
“If anyone is watching now, I’m really open to give any advice they want.”
Following her press conference on Monday, Jabeur returned to the court and won her doubles match alongside American Alison Riske against Andreja Klepac and Zheng Saisai.
Jabeur and Riske reached the doubles semi-finals in Doha last week and the North African believes playing more doubles will greatly benefit her singles game.
She is scheduled to face two-time defending champion Svitolina on centre court on Tuesday (second from an 11:00am start), in a rematch of their 2010 French Open junior final. Their most recent meeting came in Taipei two years ago, where Svitolina saved four match points before advancing to the semis at the expense of Jabeur.
All top eight seeds are in action on Tuesday, with Osaka facing Frenchwoman Kristina Mladenovic at 19:00 local time. It will be the Japanese’s first appearance as world No. 1 and first since her surprise split with her coach Sascha Bajin.
Third-seeded Simona Halep, the 2015 champion takes on Canadian Eugenie Bouchard while second-seeded Petra Kvitova, who won the title here in 2013, squares off against her fellow Czech Katerina Siniakova.