History was made by Ons Jabeur at the Viking Classic Birmingham on Sunday when she became the first Arab woman to win a WTA tournament after defeating Daria Kasatkina, 7-5 6-4, in an hour 33 minutes.
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... I’m so proud. I’ve struggled a lot and it was tough for me to win a WTA title. Ons Jabeur
“I had to go for it,” she said during the trophy presentation ceremony. “I had to win this title, just to breathe out a little bit and, also, to be the example.
“There are not a lot of Arabic or Tunisian players playing and I hope this inspires them to go on and do more.
“I want to see more of them playing alongside me.”
The Tunisian was the No 2 seed in Birmingham, and was playing her third final on the WTA Tour, having lost to Kasatkina in Moscow in 2018 and to Astra Sharma at the MUSC Health Women’s Open in Charleston earlier this year.
This was also her first win over Kasatkina, who had won both their previous very tight encounters, in Moscow and at the 2016 Olympics, despite Jabeur taking the first set each time, only to lose the second in a tiebreak before taking a three-set loss.
In Birmingham, however, the World No 24 was not to be denied, converting 5 of her 10 break points as she eased to the win over the 35th-ranked Russian, who was seeded No 4 and had 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,” Jabeur recalled. “I told her, ‘Can you please share some titles with me, at least, let me win my first WTA?’
“This morning, I was thinking am I going to be crying and disappointed tonight or am I going to celebrate?”
Jabeur, who is used to being a trailblazer for North African women’s tennis, is known for her creative shot-making and a trademark drop-shot, and this latest victory means she has tied World No 1 Ash Barty in winning 28 matches on tour this year.
The Tunisian, who beat British No 2 Heather Watson in Saturday’s semi-finals, said the disappointment of her previous finals had spurred her on against Kasatkina.
She was the aggressor throughout a tight first set, and seemed to grow in confidence in the second, while Kasatkina became increasingly frustrated by Jabeur’s clever, artful play.
Her court craft was in full effect at 3-3 in the first set, where she broke Kasatkina for a second time with a winning drop-shot and an error-forcing lob.
A crosscourt backhand at 5-3 gave Jabeur triple set point, but Kasatkina forced errors to eke out a hold and force the Tunisian to serve for the set at 5-4.
Jabeur could not capitalise there, succumbing to errors to drop her serve but she immediately broke the Russian again to love for a 6-5 lead, ending the game with a deft drop-shot return winner.
This time around, Jabeur successfully served out the set, punctuating her one-set lead with a backhand winner down the line.
“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,” Jabeur said.
She stormed ahead to 4-0 in the second when Kasatkina’s frustrations boiled over and, in a bizarre display of temper, the Russian vented at her box and scratched her neck so badly that she needed medical treatment.
Such was the force with which the 24-year-old ripped across her neck and throat, it left bleeding scratch marks which required patching up by the trainer.
“Weirdest MTO [medical timeout] I’ve eve seen in tennis,” a fan commented on the scenes on Twitter.
When Kasatkina returned to play, sporting a large bandage on her neck, she had pulled herself together and she got herself on the scoreboard, saving a break point and holding for 4-1 with an ace.
Making a late charge, the 24-year old Russian broke Jabeur to claw herself back to 4-3 with some well-timed groundstroke winners, but the Tunisian came through in the end, drawing an errant return at 5-4 to set up her first match point.
From 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.
There was no bad blood between them either, as the pair embraced on court after the match.
“I’m so proud. I’ve struggled a lot and it was tough for me to win a WTA title,” Jabeur told the crowd on the Ann Jones Centre Court.
Jabeur’s win made her the 9th player to win the maiden title of her career on the women’s tour this year.
By lifting the famous Maud Watson Trophy, the Tunisian adds her name to an impressive line-up of previous champions in Birmingham, including Billie Jean King, Maria Sharapova, Martina Navratilova and Pam Shriver.
Birmingham’s own tennis legend Ann Jones, who was instrumental in bringing the tournament to her home city, came in person to watch the final on the court named in her honour.
Jabeur narrowly missed out on making it a clean sweep of titles at the Edgbaston Priory Club when she partner Ellen Perez were edged out 6-4 2-6 [10-8] in the doubles final by Czech pair Lucie Hrdecka & Maria Bouzkova.
It came down to the wire, but Bouzkova & Hradecka picked up the final 3 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 and for Bouzkova, it marked her first WTA title in either doubles or singles.