DUBAI, UAE - No.6 seed Elina Svitolina began her quest for a hat-trick of Dubai Duty Free Tennis Championships titles in unfortunate circumstances as Ons Jabeur was forced to retire trailing 7-6(4), 4-0.
The Ukrainian had survived a barrage of hotshots and a knife-edge climax in overturning a 1-4 deficit in the first set, and was rolling through the second when Jabeur pulled out due to a right shoulder injury.
Svitolina had only narrowly beaten the Tunisian in their last meeting, saving four match points to win their 2017 Taipei City quarterfinal 6-1, 3-6, 7-6(4) - with Jabeur missing putative glory return winners by inches on three of those. The 24-year-old began today as if intent on rectifying that loss in double-quick time, opening the match in a flurry of exquisite shotmaking.
In a clash of former Roland Garros junior champions - Svitolina triumphed in 2010, and Jabeur succeeded her a year later - the latter wowed from every corner of the court as she stormed to a 4-1 lead. Currently at a career-high ranking of World No.56 and playing in front of the closest thing she has to a home crowd on the WTA Tour, Jabeur used every inch of the court to find angles with powerful groundstrokes, and delighted with her finesse: a perfect stop volley and a pinpoint backhand slice winner down the line were highlights of the fifth game alone.
"Obviously I know she's a good player - she can deliver a good match," observed Svitolina afterwards. However, she also acknowledged that she had not begun sharply: "Today I didn't really feel like in a match mood," she admitted. "I don't know why. Was a bit struggling. In the end, we could say I had a very slow start."
But it didn't last. Having slammed two forehand winners to take a 4-2, 30-0 lead, Jabeur's touch suddenly went severely awry - and a series of errors on the dropshot, volley and forehand later, Svitolina was back in the set.
Reeling off four consecutive games and displaying higher energy levels, the WTA Finals champion seemed to have survived the early danger - but, serving for the set at 5-4, was unable to close it out. Three set points came and went as a combination of Svitolina errors and Jabeur's regained accuracy levelled the score - and when Jabeur held from 0-40 to lead 6-5, the Moscow runner-up found herself in a commanding position once more.
Having taken a tumble on her ankle two games earlier, though, Jabeur now began exhibiting signs of shoulder pain. Though she had another moment of magic saved for the tiebreak - a flicked single-handed backhand pass on the turn to save a fourth set point - Jabeur was too errant on the smash and off the ground, and solid serving saw Svitolina close the opening act out on her fifth set point.
Last week's Doha semifinalist sustained her momentum into the second set in style, capturing 14 of the first 18 points as a cascade of errors poured from Jabeur. Coming out on the wrong side of a two-deuce tussle to fall behind a double break proved to be the final nail in the coffin as Svitolina advanced to face either No.15 seed Garbiñe Muguruza or Zheng Saisai.
The 2017 and 2018 victor here, Svitolina said afterwards that the thought of potentially winning three titles in a row was helping her. "Definitely it's a big motivation for me," she told the press. "When I was 0-2 down, I told myself, C'mon, you are here to make history of the tournament."