Tunisia’s Ons Jabeur finds herself in poll position for the Mutua Madrid Open title after the 8th seed dispatched Simona Halep, the former World No 1 from Romania, in straight sets on Wednesday to reach the semi-finals, where she will meet a qualifier in Ekaterina Alexandrova, who got past America’s Amanda Anisimova, also in 2 sets.
Winning against Simona today was a mandatory part that I had to go through to achieve the goals that I told you about. Why not be Top 5 and win more titles? So I'm glad that I succeeded this test, but the tournament is not over yet. Ons Jabeur
The top half semi-final will be between another American, 12th-seeded Jessica Pegula, and Switzerland’s Jil Teichmann, who defeated Sara Sorribes Tormo from Spain and Ukraine’s Anhelina Kalinina respectively.
Few would have predicted this outcome with 17 of the Top 20 in the field, although World No 1 Iga Swiatek was a late withdrawal just ahead of the start of the action last week.
Peppered with tasty upsets, Jabeur is the highest seed left standing, and she collected one of the best wins of her career on continental clay by eliminating 2-time Madrid champion Halep, 6-3 6-2, in just over an hour.
The Romanian had looked a shoe-in to bag a 3rd title here in Madrid, having taken out World No 2 Paula Badosa from Spain and 14th-seed Coco Gauff from the USA without dropping a set, but she met her match in Jabeur on Wednesday.
“To be honest with you, I was really stressed the whole match, knowing Simona, knowing that she can come back at every time,” said Jabeur. “I felt like she played really well, and I’m impressed with the fact I didn’t focus on that point, because if I really was frustrated, I could have lost the game.
“But happy that I kept it cool and won that game, because it was, I think, the game of the set.”
The Tunisian got off to the slower start, dropping her serve in the 3rd game, but she broke back immediately before taking a 4-2 lead and hanging on for the rest of the opener to take the first set.
Halep bounced back at the beginning of the second, when she went up 2-1, but her level then dropped as Jabeur claimed 2 breaks to open a 5-2 lead, and the Tunisian had few problems serving out for the match.
Her record on hard courts across the first 3 months of the year, which were hampered by a back injury that forced her out of the Australian Open, was 8-5 but, since moving on to the clay, Jabeur has gone 10-2 and counting.
“Winning against Simona today was a mandatory part that I had to go through to achieve the goals that I told you about,” Jabeur told WTA Insider. “Why not be Top 5 and win more titles?
“So I’m glad that I succeeded this test, but the tournament is not over yet.”
Jabeur conjured up 25 winners, many casually flicked drop-shots that drew gasps from the crowd, plus she achieved a 78% winning percentage behind her first serve, which allowed her to shrug off any potential turning points in the match.
Halep, now ranked 21 after an injury-hampered 2021, was undone by 20 unforced errors to only 8 winners, and never found her range consistently enough, with her forehand going off the boil for a long stretch in the first set, and her backhand letting her down in the home stretch, including a netted short ball on match point.
Now in her 2nd career WTA 1000 semi-final, Jabeur will test Alexandrova next, who rolled past Anismova, 6-4 6-3, becoming only the 3d qualifier to reach the last 4 in Madrid.
Alexandrova had never gone beyond the last 16 at WTA 1000 level or above prior to this week, but she powered into her biggest career semi-final in 1 hour and 30 minutes.
Anisimova was bidding for her biggest semi-final since Roland Garros 2019, and while she got the upper hand in most of the baseline duels, going up twice a break in the first set, Alexandrova broke back immediately both times and captured the American’s serve again at 4-4 before slamming down 4 straight unreturned serves to seal the set.
In the second, the 27-year old World No 45 went down 2-1, but came through 9 deuces over the next 3 games to take a 4-2 lead.
20-year old Anisimova, who converted only 3 of her 11 break point chances, was also beset by 8 double-faults and 21 unforced errors, and needed a medical time-out while trailing 3-2 in the second set for treatment to her left calf.
Alexandrova, by contrast, struck 19 winners and kept her unforced error tally to 7, sealing her 2nd match point when Anisimova sent a backhand long.
With a biggest career final at stake for both semi-finalists, Jabeur may be favoured by way of ranking, but Alexandrova is bolstered by a dominant head-to-head, leading the Tunisian 6-1 overall, including 3-0 wins on clay.
In the top half of the draw, Pegula advanced by ousting Spanish favourite Sorribes Tormo, 6-4 6-2.
“[Sorribes Tormo is] just so tough, and she makes you play … that’s what I was expecting,” Pegula said afterwards. “I’m not going to out-rally or out-grind her from the back, so it’s such a fine line of moving in and coming forward, but picking the right times to do that.
“So that’s what I did, and I did it well enough. I drop-shotted a lot and it worked really well, that’s also something I wanted to do. I executed my game plan, it’s just so hard when you’re out there.”
Pegula has become one of the tour’s most consistent players, which stands in stark contrast to what had been a career blighted by injuries and major surgeries but, in the aftermath of the 2020 tour resumption from the COVID-19 lockdown, the American has found peak form, starting with a run to the 2021 Australian Open quarter-finals.
Sorribes Tormo was in the midst of her best run of the season after a similarly impressive 2021, and rode the crowd energy to victories over Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova, Naomi Osaka, and Daria Kasatkina, and although she fell behind a quick 0-4 deficit to Pegula on Wednesday, the Spaniard showed off her inimitable fighting qualities as the match unfolded.
Pegula moved ahead 5-1 only for Sorribes Tormo to score successive breaks to get the opening set back on track but, at 5-5, the Spaniard blinked and the American converted.
The 12th seed took a near-identical lead in the second, after Sorribes Tormo broke in the opening game but lost the next 5, mounting a brave last stand before Pegula ultimately edged through in under 2 hours.
Pegula completed the final-4 line-up and will next face Western & Southern Open runner-up Jil Teichmann for what would be the biggest final in her career.
Earlier in the day, Teichmann reached her biggest semi-final with a 6-3 6-4 victory over Kalinina, and the Swiss has yet to drop a set all week.
The top-half quarter was a battle between two players separated by very little in the rankings, with World No 35 Teichmann taking a 90-minute victory over the 37th-ranked Kalinina.
They had played twice previously, both times on clay below tour-level, and they had split those two meetings.
“I really like the conditions here in Madrid,” said Teichmann. “It’s perfect.
“It’s a mix between the Spanish clay, which I practice a lot, and a little bit altitude, like I’m used to, from Switzerland. So it’s actually great for me here.”
Kalinina’s Madrid run had been impressive, her 3 wins coming against Grand Slam champions Sloane Stephens, Garbiñe Muguruza, and Emma Raducanu, but the Ukrainian’s fatigue was clear from the outset.
Serving at 2-3, 15-40, in the opener, Kalinina fought off the first break point with a terrific crosscourt backhand but on the next point, Teichmann ’s defence was enough to elicit a forehand struck long and, by the end of it, the Ukrainian had made 12 unforced errors, against a stingy 3 by the Swiss.
Teichmann finished the match with 17 winners to 15 unforced errors, taking command with aggressive play, particularly from the forehand side at key moments.
“Last year, the thing is I missed out almost all the clay season,” said Teichmann. “I came to Madrid with no matches. … Rome and Strasbourg, I got injured as well.
“I didn’t really get many chances on clay last year, so that’s why I would say, yeah, I had a better run on hard court, which I’m really happy as well but, I think, I’m a player that can play on all surfaces, [and] I’m showing it now, and just need to confirm it.”
Asked once for a one-word self-description, Teichmann said ‘unexpected’.
The 24-year-old left-hander served for the match at 5-4, 40-30, having just lost 2 consecutive match points as Kalinina counter-punched but, on her 3rd attempt, Teichmann went with her pet serve, the wide slice and opted to serve and volley.
Anticipating Kalinina’s crosscourt return, Teichmann deftly feathered a forehand stop volley that ended the match with a flourish.
While Kalinina’s success was based on power and accuracy, Teichmann’s variety of looped forehands, sliced backhands and penetrating drives counter-balanced the Ukrainian offensive.
In the second set, serving at 2-1, the Swiss was broken, and it happened again at 3-2 until the 7th game, when Kalinina serving at 3-all, 40-30, Teichmann threaded an untouchable forehand return down the line with a cry of ‘Allez!’
Teichmann continued to weave her web and, serving at 4-3, 30-15, she fired an ace down the T and, 2 games later, it was all over, the Swiss striking 17 winners to Kalinina’s 8.
It has been a tremendous week for Teichmann, who has beaten World No 18 Elena Rybakina, 2021 US Open finalist Leylah Fernandez and 3-time Madrid champion Petra Kvitova.
Kalinina, who has had an eventful 12 months, coming from being ranked 161 a short year ago to a current World No 37 spot, has also had to come to terms with the dangers that her family, friends and fellow citizens are facing in her homeland, but she draws extensive support from her husband and coach, Anton Korchevski.
“He’s doing 200 percent job all the time,” Kalinina recently told WTA Insider Courtney Nguyen. “My fitness coach is in Ukraine because of the tough times. He cannot travel. So I’m just with my husband 24/7 and he’s doing everything.”