DUBAI, UAE - An intriguing first-round clash at the Dubai Duty Free Tennis Championships saw wildcard Ons Jabeur notch up her seventh career Top 20 win and third main draw victory at the tournament 7-6(3), 1-6, 6-3 over Alison Riske in two hours and 13 minutes.
A first meeting between two players who have reached their maiden Grand Slam quarterfinals in the past year and who are both currently sitting at career-high rankings was as compelling as expected as each sought to impose their disparate aggressive games on the other.
As the match ebbed and flowed at unpredictable junctures, it was ultimately Jabeur's greater ability to balance her 31 unforced errors with 28 crowd-pleasing winners that would be crucial, while Riske was sunk by 34 unforced errors and 11 double faults to only 11 winners.
Afterwards, Jabeur paid tribute to the quality of Riske's game.
"She's such a fighter," marveled the Tunisian. "We know that all the players who fight like this, it's tough to win against them. She didn't give me any easy balls at the beginning, so I had to go and win my point. She has such flat and tricky shots, it was kind of tough for me to really spin a little bit and put the ball in."
It was Jabeur who was slower to settle, losing the first eight points of the match in a flurry of simple errors. But the 2018 Moscow runner-up steadied the ship before the match could get away from her - and thereafter was able to come up with a greater amount and variety of winning shots to reel Riske in.
Jabeur's signature forehand down the line paved the way to the break back - and would serve her well over the course of the day - while the World No.45 also conjured up some delightful dropshots and passes.
But it was Jabeur's mental resilience that would win her the first set. Both players would miss opportunities as it headed towards a tiebreak, with Riske squandering triple break point in the seventh game, but at the business end of proceedings it seemed as though Jabeur would have more to rue.
Two set points passed the 25-year-old by at 5-4 before stunning defence from Riske sealed her hold for 5-5 - and then Jabeur was unable to take advantage of a spate of double faults from the American, who held for 6-6 despite four in that game taking her set tally to eight.
Both times, Jabeur would respond brilliantly, shaking off the disappointment to post a love hold (featuring two aces) for 6-5 - and then to deliver a watertight tiebreak that showcased her much-improved defense as she took a 5-0 lead before slamming a big off forehand on her fourth set point.
Unexpectedly, momentum took an abrupt volte-face in a second set that could not have been more unlike its predecessor. Riske came out firing off both wings - while Jabeur's intensity, which had held up so well in the opening act, fell away.
The Australian Open quarterfinalist's careless unforced errors mounted, eventually totalling 11 in the second set to only one winner, and even her trusty dropshot began to work against her: either Jabeur would give it too much air, allowing Riske to easily track them down and flick a winner away, or they would flop limply into the net.
By contrast, Riske would put her service woes firmly behind her, committing only two double faults and racing through a succession of service holds - and the World No.18's confidence was such that she would close the set out with a pair of superb dropshots of her own.
"She was playing better," recalled Jabeur afterwards. "Maybe my concentration was off for some time. She was playing good, but I couldn't find the solution. Probably I couldn't think good."
Pointing at her head, she continued: "I tried to call my coach to maybe discuss a little bit with him instead of going inside here crazy!"
A medical timeout for blisters on both feet while trailing 0-5 had appeared to settle Jabeur somewhat, and the deciding set got under way with four straightforward holds in a row. A tighter passage of play ensued at 5-5 as a sequence of dramatic multi-deuce games forced both players to stave off break points, with Jabeur having to stay strong after believing she had held for 3-2 - before a successful Hawk-Eye challenge from Riske forced the Eastbourne semifinalist out of her chair to continue serving.
"I was sliding a lot," Jabeur explained about her blister treatment. "It wasn't really hot, but [in] this weather, usually I get blisters. Next time I should really tape them before the match. I really hate to call the physios in the middle of the match. Some players will think I did it on purpose, but I really did not."
Ultimately, it was again Jabeur's boldness that swung the match in her favor. With her groundstrokes leaking errors again, she faced two break points at 3-3 - but came up with a pair of brilliant forehands to fend them off before holding with a fizzing backhand winner.
Riding high once again, Jabeur immediately captured the Wimbledon quarterfinalist's serve for the first time since the first set before serving out the win to love, finishing by showing off more remarkable defensive touch on her first match point. Up next for the Arab No.1 will be a test against the tournament's No.1 seed, Simona Halep.
The last time they met, in the first round of Beijing 2018, Jabeur had walked off court the winner - albeit via retirement after one set due to the Romanian's back injury. This week, though, she has been hyped up for a proper rematch.
"I was really pumped from the beginning to see the schedule, the draw and everything," Jabeur told reporters. "The second time I'm going to play her. Well, the first time really doesn't count - she was injured. But hopefully it's going to be a great match. She's a great inspiration for many players. I'm lucky enough to play her."
For Jabeur, though, being pitted against the Wimbledon champion spells opportunity to continue ticking off her 2020 bucket list. "Coming to this year, I set big goals, like I said before," she said. "I think even mentally I'm ready to play in the big fields, no? Hopefully now I'm setting up new mentality for myself. Hopefully I go for the win."