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Aryna Sabalenka steadies, scores bittersweet revenge over Ons Jabeur in Cincinnati
The No. 2 seed hit through the disappointment of a Wimbledon semifinal defeat, while the Tunisian leaves the Western & Southern Open under an injury cloud after their quarterfinal clash.
Published Aug 19, 2023
WATCH: Sabalenka shook off early serve woes to advance into her third WTA 1000 semifinal of the season.
CINCINNATI, Ohio—Aryna Sabalenka arrived to the Western & Southern Open quarterfinal with an emotionally triggering slate of opponents standing between her and the final: Ons Jabeur and Karolina Muchova, the only two women to defeat Sabalenka in major tournaments.
Sabalenka cleared one emotional hurdle on Friday night, outlasting good friend Ons Jabeur, 7-5, 6-3 as the Tunisian leaves Cincinnati under a cloud, dealing with an acute right foot injury.
“It can be distracting,” said Sabalenka of playing an out-of-sorts opponent. “But sometimes players do that for a reason, to get you distracted. But I saw that she struggled a lot. She didn't play that good. She didn't move. I was just like just finishing the match.”
The two faced off only a month ago for a dramatic encounter in the Wimbledon semifinals, with Jabeur turning around a set and a break deficit to reach her third major final. For Sabalenka, it was her fifth defeat in the final four of a Grand Slam tournament, with her lone win coming over Magda Linette at this year’s Australian Open—where, to her credit, she played one of the best matches of 2023 over Elena Rybakina to win the title.
Where the late stages of major have become a bugbear for the Belarusian, Jabeur came to Cincinnati with some scar tissue of her own, having followed up her thrilling Sabalenka victory with an agonizing defeat to Marketa Vondrousova in the championship match. Playing her first tournament since that disappointment, she enjoyed a warm reception from the crowd as she roared back from 5-1 down in the final set of her opener against Anhelina Kalinina, and escaped the worst of Thursday’s rain delays when Donna Vekic retired down 5-2 in the first set.
It can be distracting. But sometimes players do that for a reason, to get you distracted. But I saw that she struggled a lot. She didn't play that good. She didn't move. I was just like just finishing the match. Aryna Sabalenka on playing an injured opponent
Sabalenka shook off her own rusty start against Ann Li and weathered the storm against Daria Kasatkina, but appeared off-kilter when ahead, twice surrendering break advantages to Jabeur with serve performances more characteristic of her disastrous start to 2022—we're talking pre-biomechanical reinvention.
“I was a little bit out the rhythm,” she explained in press. “The courts here are not giving a lot of advantage on your serve. It's kind of like normal that you can lose your serve.
“I was just the whole match trying to find the rhythm on my serve. I was really happy that at the end I start feel it better. I really hope that tomorrow I'll be able to serve like I served in last games.”
As she sorted her serve, the No. 2 seed wisely kept pressing on return and thumped a winner into the open court to put herself a set from the semis.
But the match ultimately turned just as Jabeur appeared poised to force a decider.
Taking a medical timeout following the fifth game, Jabeur wouldn’t win another as her movement appeared visibly hindered. Sabalenka, by contrast, at last unlocked on serve, securing victory on her ninth ace.
And so, this snakebitten tournament claimed another victim; after a rash of retirements on Thursday, Jabeur joined Marie Bouzkova, who retired three games into her match against Muchova, in a race against the clock for full fitness in time for the US Open in under 10 days.
Sabalenka, however, remains in the tournament with more opportunities for revenge. After all, her Paris defeat to Muchova was arguably even more traumatic than what she suffered last month in London: from 5-2 and match point up in the final set, she lost the final five games in a tragicomic display that saw her swapping racquets with her coaching team from the stands.
“I've been super unprofessional, super stupid, all these whatever you want to call it,” Sabalenka sighs. “It was all about me there.
“I was pretty sure that I have an extra racquet in my bag. Then I think they changed the ball, so I was looking for a new racquet. I was just, like, shocked. I think that's probably affect me a lot to keep playing because I didn't have a fresh racquet. I asked my team, because I know they had in the bag an extra racquet for me. But they gave me the wrong one. I was just struggling a lot. I think that's why I was all over the place because I was blaming myself for not be professional in the semifinals match of the French Open.
“But, like, lesson learned. Now we have plenty of racquets! I really hope it's not going to happen again…Not like I really hope, but it's not going to happen again.”
Back in a semifinal against in-form opposition, Sabalenka will need to employ those lessons learned for a second straight match if she aims to edge into a third WTA 1000 final this season.