Ons Jabeur progressed at the Dubai Duty Free Tennis championships
Ons Jabeur progressed at the Dubai Duty Free Tennis championships Image Credit: Virendra Saklani/Gulf News

On Sunday afternoon, when Ons Jabeur spoke to Gulf News about her ambitions for the WTA Dubai Duty Free Championships week, she had one simple answer.

“I hope so,” was all the quiet and approachable Tunisian said with a smile when she was asked if she can do well, as she headed back to her hotel room in preparation for this week in Garhoud.

Fast-forward to Tuesday and the difference as the Arab star defeated Vera Zvonareva on Centre Court could not be more stark.

The 27-year-old unleashed untouchable groundstrokes, a barrage of aces, ferocious smashes, deft drop shots and a few roars of self-encouragement to oust the Russian former world No. 2, prevailing 6-2, 2-6, 7-5 in a little over two hours, to show she has lost none of her fighting spirit after a few months out through injury.

“That was a very, very tough match,” Jabeur, who was world No. 7 only three months ago, said. “I mean, it’s great to be back. I haven’t been playing so many matches lately. To be honest, the most important thing was to be healthy and to be able to finish this match. I was struggling a lot beginning of the season, so I didn’t want to anticipate winning or losing. I’m just grateful to be healthy and I just keep fighting away out there.

“Today was up and down for sure. I don’t think it’s possible for a human being to be hundred per cent focused the whole match for two hours. I tried to be focused as much as possible. I tried to not let Vera get in my head, not let myself get in my head. I felt like today I got angry a little bit, but not as much as before. I’m really happy with the fact I maintained calm, belief to win until the last second of the match.

Jabeur faces Jessica Pegula in the next round after the American defeated youngster Coco Gauff in straight sets on Monday. “She is a very tough player,” Jabeur said of her fellow 27-year-old. “I’m expecting a very, very difficult match once again. I’m just coming back. I don’t want to put the pressure on myself. I know she’s going to play great. I’m going to try to deliver of my magic.”

Egypt's Mayar sherif
Egypt's Mayar Sherif

Aside from moving into the second round, Jabeur also helped create a little piece of history as her appearance on Centre Court here after Egypt’s Mayar Sherif lost to two-time DDFTC champion Elina Svitolina was the first time on tour two Arabs have played back-to-back in the main draw on tour.

“Mayar is a great player,” Jabeur said. “I watched a bit of her game and I met her and her team. It’s so nice to see her here. Hopefully she will get better. I know it’s not easy to start those tournaments. I’ve been there. I played those tournaments. It was very tough to win the first rounds.

I am hundred per cent sure she is going to get there. Hopefully she will get better in the future.”

A fan with a Tunisia flag at the DDFTC
A fan with a Tunisia flag at the DDFTC Image Credit: Virendra Saklani/Gulf News

The Dubai Duty Free Tennis Stadium certainly had plenty of Arab support, with Egyptian and Tunisian flags waving from the stands throughout the afternoon.

“The fans always help me to be more motivated and I am enjoying every point,” said Jabeur. “I will take it day by day, match by match and look forward to getting the crowd cheering me on.”

Sherif lost 6-2, 6-3 to her Ukranian opponent, but was delighted to gain the Centre Court experience in Dubai, and even hinted at teaming up with Jabeur in doubles in the future.

“It was obviously exciting going on to the court my first time playing this tournament,” the 25-year-old world No. 66 said. “Even though I wasn’t serving well, I wasn’t returning well, I still had chances in the second set that I didn’t take. That was the point where it just mentally was very, very tough.

“But I think in general it’s a positive experience because I see where the level is, I see where I’m at, and just to take my game forward and improve.

“The fans were great, to be honest. There were many Egyptians today, many Arabs. I know many people were watching on TV. It was very nice to have the support of the people, not just the people on the court today, I know many people off the court were watching and were supporting. I know people that came from Egypt especially to watch. I can’t be more grateful. It gave me a lot of confidence while I was playing.

“Just having Ons around, seeing her around, it just gives you so much hope. Just looking at her way to where she is right now, it gives you a lot of confidence, it gives you a way to be patient, to see where she is now, hoping for that to come. I can’t wait to play more tournaments while she’s there, and hopefully to get a doubles match with her. So let’s see.”

Svitolina managed to block out the crowds cheering on Sherif and came through in just under 90 minutes. “I didn’t really notice them,” she said. “I don’t really notice anymore these kind of things. I played in different kinds of situations. I just try to focus on my game and focus on myself. There will always be fans for her and some for me. Obviously she’s a good player.”