Ons Jabeur’s reaction after moving into the China Open second round was understandably subdued as her opponent Simona Halep was forced to retire with a back injury while down 1-6, but the Tunisian qualifier is nevertheless pleased with her level so far this week in Beijing.
Jabeur posted two convincing victories over Olympic champion Monica Puig and Germany’s Tatjana Maria in the qualifying rounds in the Chinese capital before posting the best victory of her career by ranking against world No. 1 Halep on Sunday.
It was the Tunisian’s second top-10 win, having defeated Dominika Cibulkova at the French Open last year, and it earned her a second-round clash with in-form Croatian Donna Vekic.
“I wanted a real match, without anyone getting injured. I’m playing the world No. 1, you expect to go and scream ‘come on’, but out of respect for her, I didn’t want to act happy. Of course I was happy with the win, with the tournament in general, and hopefully I can continue winning,” said Jabeur, who almost looked sad when she walked off the court as a winner.
Halep hurt her back in Wuhan last week and was unable to recover in time for her Beijing opener. Jabeur admits she was excited when she saw she was going to face the world No. 1 and is already hoping for a rematch against a fit Halep.
— WTA (@WTA) September 30, 2018
“It was funny because usually when I receive the email [of the draw with qualifiers placed], I go down [scrolling], I was going down then realised my name was right at the top of the draw. I didn’t remember any of the qualifying spots except the one in front of Halep. So I was really happy, I like these kind of matches, I like playing big players, that’s where I can play my best, and hopefully next time will be a better match,” explained the 113th-ranked Jabeur.
After a mediocre first few months of the season, Jabeur started finding her game at the start of the grass season, earning a wildcard into the Wimbledon main draw by lifting a $100k title in Manchester, and reaching the second round at the All England Club. The 24-year-old then made the quarter-finals of the WTA event in Bucharest, qualified for the US Open main draw, and is now in the second round of a Premier Mandatory event as a qualifier in Beijing.
“I’m really happy with my level, it is getting better and better, I’m more aggressive,” said Jabeur.
“The conditions are a little bit difficult here, with the wind, and I don’t really like it, the balls are really heavy and they fly. But I’m happy, especially with yesterday [against Tatjana Maria], I played really well. I’m playing my best now and I hope I can play much better and the adventure doesn’t stop here.”
Halep was impressed by what she saw from Jabeur, even though the Romanian was unable to compete well from her side.
“She can hit the ball very strong. She’s playing well. I cannot analyse this match because I was not able to do anything on court. But she’s a good player,” said Halep of Jabeur.
Jabeur has had previous success in the Far East, having won titles in Japan, and she’s happy she’s tasting some degree of success now in China.
“I guess the noodles are good here,” she joked when asked to explain why she tends to play well in Asia.
Jabeur looks and sounds refreshed, even though we’re entering the final stages of a long, gruelling season. She says she felt “dead” this time last year in Asia but better scheduling this season that allowed her to take some breaks, and having her husband, Karim Kamoun, travel with her as her fitness trainer, has helped keep her motivated and upbeat this deep in the season.
The former French Open junior champion has been without her coach Bertrand Perret for over a month now as he serves a three-month suspension for an incident that occurred when he was coaching Peng Shuai last year.
During the Asian swing, Jabeur has enlisted her compatriot Issam Jellali, a Dubai-based coach and good friend of hers to help her out in China.
“We hit a lot together, whether in Dubai or when he comes to Tunisia in the summer. So he knows my game, he knows me really well. I like being around him because he’s a funny guy, I like to laugh obviously, that’s my character, and when I’m that comfortable, that’s where I play well. So I like the positive energy, I like my husband being here with me and it’s amazing,” said Jabeur.
— WTA (@WTA) September 30, 2018
With a return to the top-100 now within touching distance, Jabeur feels primed to make a step up to the big leagues.
“Maybe people said that to me, and I can say it, that I never got to the ranking that I deserve. Now I’m learning, not just tennis or fitness, also mentally I improved a lot and now I think I’m ready to be in the ranking that I deserve,” she concludes.
Jabeur’s second round against Vekic is scheduled fourth on the Moon Court from a 12:30pm start (Beijing time). Jabeur is 1-0 head-to-head against the Croat but they haven’t faced off since Linz 2014.
Ons Jabeur on why she looked upset after her first-round win over Simona Halep, via retirement. #chinaopen
— Reem Abulleil (@ReemAbulleil) September 30, 2018
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Appearing for the first time since he lost the US Open final to Novak Djokovic earlier this month, Del Potro is making just his second appearance at the tournament, having made his debut here last year, losing in the second round to Grigor Dimitrov.
Ranked No. 4 in the world, the Argentine is enjoying his career-best season, in which he claimed his first Masters 1000 title at Indian Wells and hit a career-high ranking of No. 3.
Nǐ hǎo 🇨🇳 pic.twitter.com/7nriDzYlwM
— Juan M. del Potro (@delpotrojuan) September 29, 2018
The tournament has been hit with multiple withdrawals including Rafael Nadal, who is recovering from a knee injury that forced him to retire from his US Open semi-final against Del Potro, as well as Andy Murray, who has pulled the plug early on his season to focus on his getting his body back in shape after undergoing hip surgery last January.
Here are some of the main talking points surrounding the action in Beijing…
Del Potro and Zverev are at No. 3 and No. 5 in the ATP Race to London and the 500 points offered to the champion in Beijing can help them secure one of the five remaining spots at the season finale.
Nadal, Novak Djokovic and Roger Federer have all booked their tickets to London, and Del Potro is hoping he can make a return to the elite top-eight finale for the fifth time in his career and first time since 2013.
Zverev made his ATP Finals debut last year and is looking to make a second appearance at the O2 Arena in London.
The pair are in prime position to qualify but the competition will be stiff among the likes of Marin Cilic (top seed in Tokyo this week), Dominic Thiem (won St. Petersburg a week ago and isn’t in action this week), Kevin Anderson (in Tokyo), John Isner (not playing this week), Kei Nishikori (Tokyo), and Fabio Fognini (made Chengdu final on Sunday, playing Beijing).
“Of course, I got exhausted after big effort in New York. But I went at home, spending the time with family and friends. I trained hard to be ready for this tournament. I know how difficult is this tournament, Shanghai Masters and the rest,” Del Potro told reporters in the Chinese capital on Sunday).
“Also we are fighting for the last five spots in London, so it could be an interesting battle between us. But I’m excited just to be there and see what’s happening.”
The ‘Tower of Tandil’ commences his assault on a third title this season against Albert Ramos-Vinolas. Zverev also faces a Spaniard, Roberto Bautista Agut.
The reigning ATP Finals champion is a lowly 17th in the Race to London and will need to basically sweep a few titles if he plans on making it back to the O2 and try to defend his crown.
Dimitrov has won a mere total of four matches over the past four months (he is 4-5 win-loss since the start of the grass season in June) but is coming off of a win with Team Europe in the Laver Cup, which may have perhaps provided him with a change of scenery and confidence boost.
The Bulgarian is seeded No. 3 in Beijing and plays American Ryan Harrison in the first round.
Jack Sock is in a far worse position. The American, who made a late surge last year to qualify for London by winning the Masters 1000 title in Paris, is having a dismal year in singles and a brilliant one in doubles.
Sock is 6-16 with one quarter-final in singles and 32-10 with five titles in doubles this season. He will be defending 1,545 of his 1,850 singles ranking points between now and the end of the year. He’s 160 in the Race to London in singles and can be at risk of missing the Australian Open main draw cut-off if he doesn’t defend some of his points.
JAZIRI CAN BE PART OF HISTORY
Tunisian Malek Jaziri takes on 18-year-old Chinese wildcard Wu Yibing in the first round on Monday. If he wins, joining his compatriot Ons Jabeur in round two, it would be the first time in history that an Arab man and Arab woman will have made it to the second round in Beijing in their respective ATP and WTA draws. Jaziri made the quarter-finals in Chengdu last week and the doubles semi-finals at the US Open earlier this month.
Wu won the US Open junior singles and doubles titles last year and is working with Maria Sharapova’s ex-coach Sven Groeneveld. He was the junior world No. 1 and is currently ranked 423 in the men’s rankings.
FIRST ROUNDS TO WATCH
Borna Coric (CRO x7) v Feliciano Lopez (ESP)
Fernando Verdasco (ESP) v Gael Monfils (FRA)
Juan Martin del Potro (ARG x1) v Alberto Ramos-Vinolas (ESP)
Grigor Dimitrov (BUL x3) v Ryan Harrison (USA)
Alexander Zverev (GER x2) v Roberto Bautista Agut (ESP)
Simona Halep admits she is “worried” about the lower back injury that forced her to retire from her China Open first round against Ons Jabeur on Sunday.
The world No. 1 sustained the back problem in Wuhan last week during a practice session with Petra Kvitova but said it was just a block that should get better in a few days. But Halep was clearly in pain during her first round in Beijing as she dropped the first set 6-1 to a confident and aggressive Jabeur.
The trainer came out to try and help Halep during the set but she decided to retire as soon as the opening set was over.
“There is a pain. I couldn’t move properly, so that’s why I stopped. I don’t know exactly what it is. I will go home. I will have an MRI and I will see,” said Halep, who is now on a four-match losing streak for the first time since 2012.
“Hopefully is not the back, the bones or something like that. I’m just worried now. I feel sad that I couldn’t finish.”
Halep’s concern comes from the fact that she feels the pain is no longer simply a muscle issue.
“The muscle is better, the muscle of the back. But now I started to feel yesterday in the bones. So it’s really tough when you have back injury because you cannot bend, you cannot react at the balls. All the body was really contracted. I couldn’t play.”
Halep pushed herself to play the full match against Dominika Cibulkova in Wuhan last week, but was hampered by the back during her straight-sets defeat to the in-form Slovakian. She didn’t want to do that in Beijing fearing she would exacerbate the issue even more.
“That’s why I stopped, because I felt like it’s getting worse if I continue. Today I could stop. I think last week was also good point to stop, but I forced a little bit to see how it goes. But here it was a bit too much,” explained Halep.
“[The pain was] since the beginning of the match. Also before at the practice. The pain didn’t let me at all. I knew that there is pain, but I thought if I warm up during the match, it’s going to be better. But wasn’t.
“In Wuhan was also the lower back was blocked so I couldn’t move for two days there. Then with a lot of treatment, it was better. I started to feel in the muscle a lot. Was really, really contracted. Then I had some needles. I did the treatment. The muscle was better. But now I still feel the bone.”
Halep is still entered in the Moscow tournament, which is scheduled to take place from October 15 to 21, then should head straight to Singapore for the WTA Finals.
On her part, Jabeur, who now has two top-10 victories in her career, looked visibly upset after Halep informed her she had to retire.
“I didn’t want the match to end like this. I wanted a real battle. Unfortunately she was injured. I didn’t look happy because I didn’t want to win this way,” said the 113th-ranked Tunisian.
“But, of course, I take the win. I hope next time we can play a real match without anyone injured.”