The 2021 WTA season will kick off at the Zayed Sports City International Tennis Centre in Abu Dhabi with a draw befitting a mini-major. The tournament features four of the world’s Top 10, and will also mark the return of Tunisian sensation Ons Jabeur. The 2020 Australian Open quarterfinalist is a bona-fide celebrity in the Middle East, boasting nearly one million fans on Facebook and another 215,000 followers on Instagram.
But Jabeur, a player of undeniable talent, is not satisfied with just fanfare.
“I want to go for titles—I’ve had enough quarterfinals—and I want to get into the Top-10,” she says. “I know I have the level to be at this ranking and I know I can achieve this, I’ve put in the hard work needed to reach these goals and win more and more.”
It’s exciting to hear a player with such incredible skill acknowledge an increase in work-ethic and professionalism, and while the future seems bright, Jabeur faces a difficult first-round test against former world No. 13 Anastasija Pavyluchenkova. The Russian likely shares Jabeur’s quarterfinal sentiment, having reached the final eight in all four Grand Slams—but no farther. According to the oddsmakers, the home favorite Jabeur is listed as a slight -170 favorite, but unfortunately for her, there will be no raucous supporters this week in Abu Dhabi.
If Jabeur has actually increased her fitness capacity, look out. The two have met once before in Dubai, in 2017, with Jabeur squeaking out a victory, 6-4 in the third. They also played a spectacular match in August at the Ultimate Tennis Showdown, won handily by Pavlyuchenkova.
For Jabeur, it all starts with her serve, and more often than not, ends with her drop shot. When dictating from her front foot, Jabeur combines massive power and accuracy with arguably the WTA’s most effective dropper.
But all too often, Jabeur uses the shot as a bail-out. Here, after playing defense during most of the point, she tries a drop shot off Pavlyuchenkova’s cleanly struck forehand, from well behind the baseline.
Jabeur’s touch and racquet skill frustrate her opponents, but Pavyluchenkova also owns fantastic touch, and won’t be bothered by Jabeur’s unique playing style.
In the end, this match will likely boil down to each player’s current fitness level. If Jabeur can control the points from her front foot, and use her drop shots and short-angle slices judiciously, she should be able to succeed. Perhaps this is where Jabeur’s run to the Top 10 begins.
The Pick: Ons Jabeur