ABU DHABI, U.A.E. -- No.15 seed Ons Jabeur of Tunisia fended off a fierce fight from Ukrainian qualifier Kateryna Bondarenko, storming back from a set down to earn a 5-7, 6-3, 6-2 victory and claiming her spot in the third round of the Abu Dhabi WTA Women’s Tennis Open.
"[Bondarenko is] a good friend, we’ve practiced together," Jabeur informed the media during her post-match press conference. "I know how good she can play, I know how fast she can play. Today it was really a difficult match and I’m glad that I won."
In the first meeting between the two players, World No.31 Jabeur shook off the up-and-down opening set to overcome former Top 30 player Bondarenko in one hour and 49 minutes and notch her second match-win of the year.
Currently at her career-high ranking, Jabeur struggled with errors in the opening frame, but regrouped and was helped along by 11 aces to avoid her first loss to a player ranked outside the Top 200 since 2018.
"She was returning really well, and she was putting a lot of pressure on me, and she was making the shots that I didn’t like," said Jabeur. "At the end I was like, 'Okay, either I get frustrated about it or I just have to do something.' I lost the [first] set, but then I had to move on and play whatever tennis I can play to win the match, and that’s what I did."
"I was telling myself, especially in the second set and third set, that it doesn’t matter how I play, it doesn’t matter about the quality of my game, I have to get this win," Jabeur added.
Bondarenko, with daughter Eva watching from the stands, showed signs of her top form which brought her two WTA singles titles and a trip to the 2009 US Open quarterfinals, but she could not break Jabeur in the final two sets, and thus was unable to claim her best win by ranking since defeating then-World No.18 Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova at the 2018 Australian Open.
Now into the round of 16, Jabeur will next face No.4 seed Aryna Sabalenka of Belarus, who defeated Ajla Tomljanovic of Australia on Friday. Jabeur won their only prior encounter, a three-setter at Roland Garros last season.
"Sabalenka is Sabalenka, you know?" Jabeur said with a smile. "It's fun to play her, to be honest. Last time it was a lot of fun. It's going to be a really nice show and I'm going to tell everybody to turn on the TV."
"It's going to be a really great match with both of us screaming from the other sides," Jabeur laughed. "Both of us hitting winners. It's going to be an amazing match. I love these kind of matches, I love this kind of challenge. I like Sabalenka, I like how she plays, I like how she reacts on the court. It's going to be fun.
Bondarenko started the match by holding break points in all of Jabeur’s first four service games, converting one with a powerful service return to take a 3-1 lead. With both players using their exceptional variety of shot to maneuver the balls into unexpected positions, it was Bondarenko who kept her error count lower as she maintained her advantage all the way to 5-2.
The Ukrainian swiftly moved to triple set point in that game as errors continued to mount from Jabeur. The Tunisian, though, began to force more errors from the qualifier once she was forced into her dire predicament, and her serving effectiveness picked up as well, eventually storming back to hold for 5-3 with an ace.
Having staved off the trio of set points, Jabeur slammed a putaway to earn her first break of the day for 5-4, before cruising through a love service game to steer to 5-5. However, Bondarenko was not fazed by the seeded player’s comeback, and put the pressure right back on her opponent by holding for 6-5.
Jabeur served her way to 40-0 in the next game, but more untimely miscues dragged her back to deuce. After seeing a fourth set point come and go in that game, a stunning lob winner by Bondarenko gave the qualifier a fifth opportunity to close out the set. The Ukrainian converted that chance with a backhand winner down the line, eking out the one-set lead.
After coming up short in the tight first set, Jabeur quickly rebounded in the second, racing to double break point in the first game, then firing a winner off the netcord to steal the quick service break. The early advantage helped ease the Tunisian, as she cruised through her next three service games with the loss of just two points, zipping to 4-2.
Bondarenko did well to save a break point in that game and hold for 4-3, but Jabeur had another chance to break the Ukrainian two games later, slamming a return winner to queue up set point at 5-3. Jabeur was able to claim that point after a long forehand by Bondarenko, and the Tunisian successfully bookended the second set with service breaks to level the match at one set apiece.
Jabeur kicked off the deciding set on the front foot, holding two break points at 2-1, though Bondarenko was fleet enough to chase down more of Jabeur’s deft dropshots and squeak out the hold for 2-2. However, Jabeur earned two more break points with a forehand passing winner two games later, and the Tunisian converted the critical break right there after a long error by Bondarenko.
After holding for 5-2 with an ace, Jabeur romped to triple match point in the very next game. A steely Bondarenko withstood all three, but Jabeur earned a fourth match point with a forehand winner. At that point, Bondarenko misfired on a double fault to cede victory to the Tunisian.