One week ago, Ons Jabeur seemed out of sorts in a listless 6-3, 6-2 loss to Danka Kovinic in a Volvo Car Open semifinal.
Professional athletes are notoriously vanilla when discussing upcoming contests – creating bulletin board material is an occupational hazard best avoided – but heading into Saturday’s rematch, Jabeur did not hold back.
“I’m definitely going for my revenge,” Jabeur said, with an unmistakable gusto. “I’m going to really play like I never played before. I really want this win.”
In thrashing Kovinic 6-3, 6-0 in the MUSC Health Women’s Open semifinals, the No.1 seed played with the sense of extreme urgency she promised.
“I mean, I guess saying it out loud helps me like get the confidence that I need,” Jabeur told reporters later. “I lost a lot of matches before in those kinds of situations where stress more than it’s supposed to be.
“So I tried to learn from my last match [against Kovinic]. I had a lot of opportunities before and I don’t want to waste any opportunities anymore.”
Her reward? A spot in Sunday’s Charleston 250 final opposite a most unlikely opponent. Astra Sharma, the 25-year-old Australian ranked No. 165, finally cooled off ascendant Colombian teenager Maria Camila Osorio Serrano 7-6(5), 6-1.
The loss ended an eight-match winning streak for the 19-year-old, which included the first title of her career a week ago in Bogota.
Thus, Jabeur and Sharma meet for the first time. Both are playing in their second WTA final, and both are exceedingly hungry to win their first crown.
“I watched [Jabeur] a little bit today,” Sharma said. “She’s obviously playing really well. I’m really excited. I’ve never played her. I can’t wait to get out there. I’m playing really well and it will be fun to match up and see how I go.”
It’s been a lively fortnight in Charleston with the Volvo Car Open, a WTA 500 event, and the MUSC Health Women’s Open, a 250. Some 84 matches have been played, with only one remaining. Will it be Jabeur or Sharma who follows Veronika Kudermetova’s example and wins that WTA title?
If fortitude, both physical and mental, comes into play, the 26-year-old Tunisian will like her chances. In the match’s eighth game, Kovinic saved all nine of the set points on Jabeur’s racquet. It ran a grueling 15 minutes, during which Jabeur appeared to suffer from gastric distress. Ultimately, she was broken but returned the favor by converting her 10th set point with a measured backhand winner.
“To be honest, I regret only one set point, the easy one that I missed,” Jabeur said. “She didn’t give me any free points. It was a tough game for both. I’m glad I responded well for the next game.
“In my head, `She deserves to win this game. OK, let’s try again.’ And that’s what I did.”
Jabeur, who won the last seven games after that queasy interlude, broke Kovinic’s serve seven of eight times.
Sharma, 25, doesn’t have the big weapons Jabeur possesses, but there is a gritty guile to her game. She was aggressive against Osorio Serrano, working her way to net when she could. Down 5-6 in the first set, Sharma saved four set points to force a tiebreaker. When Osorio slapped a forehand into the net, she converted her first and only set point.
“In the tiebreak, I thought I did a good job, holding my nerve, weathering the storm of her good shots,” Sharma said. “I thought she’s such a clean ball-striker, such a tough opponent that I was mentally prepared for her to hit those. I tried my best to beat her with my physicality, wear her down.”
Sharma played collegiate tennis at Vanderbilt University. In fact, she clinched the 2015 NCAA title for the Commodores and was an All-American.
Her resume to this point is highlighted by the 2019 final she made at Bogota. The other item of note is a final appearance in the 2019 Australian Open mixed doubles with John-Patrick Smith.
“Clay is such a physical surface,” Sharma said. “I’ve tried to use that, really, to make girls beat me. I’m just going to show up every point and hit it as hard as I can. If you can beat me over three sets, then too good.”
While Sharma has been a revelation, Jabeur, too, has surprised. She’s a tidy 8-1 in her stay on the green clay and her ranking next week is projected to rise to at least World No.25, a career high. Her 18 wins are second on tour behind Garbine Muguruza’s 21.
Afterward, Jabeur said she has an ongoing issue with her stomach.
“I’m glad I didn’t let it affect me during the match,” she said. “Hopefully, tomorrow it will be OK.
“I’m in this momentum right now, and I really want this title so bad. So I’m going to do whatever it takes to get it. I’m going to fight so hard on the court. I want to show the world what Ons is capable of. And it’s working pretty well for now. I hope tomorrow is going to be my day.”