The third time was the charm for Ons Jabeur, as the Tunisian notched the first WTA singles title of her career at the Viking Classic Birmingham on Sunday, defeating Daria Kasatkina 7-5, 6-4.
No.2 seed Jabeur had lost in her two previous singles finals: one to Kasatkina herself at 2018 Moscow, and the other earlier this season at the MUSC Health Women’s Open in Charleston, to Astra Sharma.
But this time around, Jabeur entered the winner’s circle with an hour-and-a-half victory over No.4 seed Kasatkina of Russia to make history, becoming the first Arab woman to claim a WTA singles title.
"I knew I had to go for it, I had to win this title to at least breathe, and give an example," Jabeur said during the on-court trophy presentation. "There’s not a lot of Tunisian or Arabic players playing, so I hope this could inspire them, and I want to see more Arabic [players] and Tunisians playing with me on tour."
The victory continues a stellar season for Jabeur, whose 28 match-wins in 2021 is tied for the most on the WTA along with World No.1 Ashleigh Barty.
Jabeur’s triumph also avenged two whisker-thin losses to Kasatkina in their two previous meetings. In both the aforementioned 2018 Moscow final, as well as in their first-round clash at the 2016 Olympics, Jabeur won the first set each time, only to lose the second set in a tiebreak before taking a three-set loss.
But in Birmingham, World No.24 Jabeur was not to be denied, converting five of her ten break points as she eased to the win over 35th-ranked Kasatkina, who has already won two singles titles this season.
"Last time we played was in Moscow, she won, and I was crying, it was a great battle," said Jabeur. "I told her, 'Can you please share some titles with me, at least, let me win my first WTA?'"
The court craft of Jabeur was in full effect at 3-3 in the first set, where she broke Kasatkina for a second time with a winning dropshot and an error-forcing lob during that game. A crosscourt backhand at 5-3 gave Jabeur triple set point, but Kasatkina forced errors from Jabeur to eke out a hold and force the Tunisian to serve for the set at 5-4.
Jabeur could not capitalize there, succumbing to errors to drop serve. However, Jabeur broke once more at love for a 6-5 lead, ending that game with a deft dropshot return winner. This time around, Jabeur successfully served out the set, punctuating her one-set lead with a backhand winner down the line.
"You know Dasha, you have to win every point you have," Jabeur said. "I knew it was going to be difficult, but then when I lost my serve again, I just thought I’d continue focusing on breaking her again, just playing my game."
Ons Jabeur: History Maker— WTA Insider (@WTA_insider) June 20, 2021
The Tunisian trailblazer is the 1st Arab woman to:
- Win a junior Slam (2011 RG)
- Make a Slam 3R (2017 RG)
- Make a Slam QF (2020 AO)
- Win a WTA singles title (2021 Birmingham)
- Rank inside the Top 70 - Currently highest-ranked ever at No.24. pic.twitter.com/gRvu05P9nr
Spurred on by the momentum, Jabeur stormed ahead 4-0 in the second set before Kasatkina put herself on the scoreboard, saving a break point and holding for 4-1 with an ace. The Russian made a late charge, breaking Jabeur once and clawing back to 4-3 with some well-timed groundstroke winners.
But Jabeur came through in the end, drawing an errant return at 5-4 to set up her first match point. There, Jabeur fired a forehand to force a netted error from Kasatkina, and the Tunisian sank to the ground in joy, a title winner on the WTA at last.
Try as she might, Jabeur was unable to sweep both titles in Birmingham, as the Czech squad of Marie Bouzkova and Lucie Hradecka edged Jabeur and Ellen Perez in the doubles final, 6-4, 2-6, [10-8].
It came down to the wire, but Bouzkova and Hradecka picked up the final three points of the match-tiebreak to eke out the win after an hour and a quarter of play.
The win was a milestone for each of the Czechs. For the veteran Hradecka, it was her 25th WTA doubles title. For Bouzkova, it marked her first WTA title in either doubles or singles.