No.8 seed Ons Jabeur continued her trailblazing ways at the Mutua Madrid Open, becoming the first Arab player to reach a WTA 1000 final after defeating qualifier Ekaterina Alexandrova 6-2, 6-3 in 61 minutes.
The result was an illustration of Jabeur's reinvention over the past two seasons. Between 2016 and 2018, she had lost to Alexandrova five times in six matches, all at either ITF or qualifying level. Last October, Alexandrova added a sixth win, but via retirement in Moscow.
In the first completed match between the pair since Jabeur's 2020 ascent into the Top 20, the Tunisian was both ruthless and efficient. She opted to go toe-to-toe with Alexandrova in terms of first-strike tennis, racking up quick points with sheer power rather than relying on flashy hot shots.
Madrid will be Jabeur's second final of 2022, following her runner-up showing in Charleston last month, and her sixth career final in total.
Alexandrova's loss means that qualifiers are now 0-11 in WTA 1000 semifinals dating back to 2009. Jabeur is guaranteed to rise from No.10 to No.8 in the rankings next week, and a title would see her equal her career-high of No.7.
By the numbers: In total, Jabeur dropped just six points behind her first serve; and in the second set, her delivery reached untouchable heights. Landing 80% of her first serves, she conceded only four points in her service games overall.
Jabeur also scored slightly more clean winners, 13 to Alexandrova's 11, but more importantly kept her unforced error count to a meagre nine compared to her opponent's 23. Particularly ill-timed for the No.45-ranked Alexandrova were the two errant groundstrokes, followed by two consecutive double faults, with which she dropped serve at 3-4 in the second set.
Point of the match: After a scratchy start which had already seen an exchange of breaks, Jabeur regained her advantage by coming out on top of a spectacular rally to break for 4-2 in the first set. Both players pummelled the ball to every corner of the court for 20 shots before Jabeur finished it in style with - naturally - a dropshot.
Jabeur on the challenge Alexandrova posed: "I don't have great records in front of her. I knew I was playing such an aggressive player. She hits really flat and hits a lot of winners, so in my mind, I was accepting those kind of winners and accepting that she can do any ace any time, any winner any time.
"I know I was the favorite, I know I was playing good, I knew also she was a little bit tired from playing a lot of matches. So mentally I was really focused and I was ready for the win and not accepting to lose this time.
"I feel like the tournament is also revenge tournament, from Bencic to Halep to Alexandrova. If it's going through this rhythm, I think Jil [Teichmann, who defeated Jabeur at Dubai 2021] will win tonight.
"But I feel like I'm keeping to test myself, to test my patience. To test, OK, Ons, you said you want to be Top 5, you want to win titles - here it is, players, champions you are going to play against. Show me what you got, you know."
Jabeur on looking ahead to the final: "I'm going to put a positive here. I want to win this final. I'm going to put my heart, my favourite dropshot, my forehand in.
"This match is going to be different [from the Charleston final]. I'm just going to really give my best. I don't want to regret, you know, saying like, Should I have done this, Should I have done that, I should have won my serve at that moment. I may go the same spirit that I played in Birmingham.
"The main important thing for me, I know it's winning the title but knowing that I gave it all during the match and not regretting that. I know if this one is not coming, then there is another one.
"I keep pushing myself to do better. The proof is that from Charleston I worked really hard to be in the finals here. Like I said, I'm going to leave my heart on the court on Saturday."