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