World No 2 Aryna Sabalenka beat an ailing Ons Jabeur, the Tunisian 5th seed, 7-5 6-3, at the Western & Southern Open, the WTA 1000 hard court tournament in Cincinnati on Friday, to reach the semi-final against Karolina Muchova.
I'm super happy to be in the semi-finals again in Cincinnati, but right now I'm a little bit sad for Ons. It can be distracting, but sometimes players do that for a reason, to get you distracted. But I saw that she struggled a lot. She didn't play that good. She didn't move. I was just, like, just finishing the match. Aryna Sabalenka
Jabeur overcame Sabalenka on her way to the Wimbledon final this year, and their rematch had all the makings of an epic battle as they twice traded breaks in a tense first set before Sabalenka closed out the 12th game with a lethal backhand return.
The Tunisian went up a break in the second set when the affair began to unravel, Jabeur taking a medical time-out to have her right foot taped by the trainer.
Although she bounded off her bench and jogged onto court, she clearly was not herself anymore as she handed Sabalenka the break with a couple of double-faults in the 6th game, and could not put up much of a fight as the Belarusian broke her again in the 8th.
“I’m super happy to be in the semi-finals again in Cincinnati, but right now I’m a little bit sad for Ons,” the Australian Open winner said in on-court remarks.
The Tunisian leaves Cincinnati under a cloud, dealing with an acute right foot injury.
“It can be distracting,” said Sabalenka of playing an out-of-sorts opponent. “But sometimes players do that for a reason, to get you distracted. But I saw that she struggled a lot. She didn’t play that good. She didn’t move. I was just, like, just finishing the match.”
Sabalenka finished with 31 winners to 23 unforced errors, while Jabeur struck 20 winner to 19 miscues.
After avenging her Wimbledon semi-final loss to Jabeur, Sabalenka now hopes to get one back against Muchova, who needed just 11 minutes on court to reach the Last 4 as her opponent and compatriot Marie Bouzkova retired from their match due to a right thigh injury while trailing 3-0.
“I actually think this surface is really good for her style of game,” Sabalenka said. “But, probably, I felt more confidence on the hard court against her. I kind of know her a little bit better.
“I hope I’m going to take this win back. At least I’ll do everything I can, everything that is in my hands to get this win back.”
Ranked 17 at the start of the week, Muchova is into her 7th career semi-final overall, and holds a 3-3 record in tour-level semi-finals.
Her last semi-final appearance came in May at the French Open, where she saved match point to defeat Sabalenka en route to her first major final.
“Everything has gone fast after Montréal,” Muchova said. “I had tough matches here, three setters. The key this week has been regeneration, and refocusing, because I have to get ready for another match.
“I’m really happy about [my consistency] because I had great results in the past and then I could never continue.
“So I’m happy the way things are working. I feel great with my game. Some matches are worse than others but I keep fighting. I’m really happy that we are building with my team.”
All four of the Cincy semi-finalists are Grand Slam finalists, and two of them are major champions, Swiatek in Paris and New York, and Sabalenka in Melbourne, and it marks the first time since 2017 that the world’s top two players have advanced to the semi-finals here.
Swiatek and Sabalenka are looking to set up their 9th career clash in the final, and the 3rd this season, having split the previous two in Stuttgart, won by the Pole, Madrid which went to the Belarusian, but they each must navigate past Coco Gauff and Muchova to do so.
While the Last 4 contest between Gauff and Swiatek on Saturday promises to be a mix of power, athleticism and first-strike tennis, it will be a clash of styles for the big-hitting Sabalenka and all-court Muchova, who has long been a threatening presence on the WTA Tour but has just one previous title to her name, Seoul 2019.
It is a rematch of their dramatic roller coaster in the French Open semi-final in June, in which Sabalenka led by 5-2 in the third set, only to go down 7-5 after dropping the final 5 games.
This week, Muchova earned her 10th career top 10 win, against Maria Sakkari, the 6th seed from Greece, in the 3rd round.
The Czech is 5-7 against the Top 5 in her career, which is a stunning stat for a player who currently sits just off her career high of No 16 at 17th in the world.
Muchova plays with the craft and guile that can prove confounding, especially for a power-hitter like Sabalenka.
“I’m really looking forward for this match,” Sabalenka said after a win over Jabeur on Friday night. “I’m going to take this win back.”