US Open 2019: Ons Jabeur employs slice and drop shots learnt on football fields to push Karolina Pliskova to the brink

The 6’1 Pliskova looked distinctly uncomfortable in the two-hour clash against Jabeur, who managed to slice the ball low and keep it out of Pliskova’s hitting zone.

Deepti Patwardhan August 31, 2019 14:05:42 IST
US Open 2019: Ons Jabeur employs slice and drop shots learnt on football fields to push Karolina Pliskova to the brink
  • But once she had backed Pliskova into a corner, Jabeur didn’t shy away from powering her groundstrokes, especially the forehand

  • On a sunny day in New York, Pliskova particularly felt the heat in the second set. Three of her service games went on for seven minutes or more

  • While Pliskova is one of the two Czech women in WTA top 10, Jabeur is the only one from her continent competing in the field of 128 at the US Open

As there are no grass courts in her hometown of Tunis, Ons Jabeur had been left to hone her slice and drop shots on football fields. On Friday, with very little going her way, she retraced those delicate skills at the Louis Armstrong stadium. During the third-round clash against World No 3 Karolina Pliskova, down a set and a break at 1-6, 1-2 (40-40), Jabeur stayed into the point with a lunging return, and followed it up with two masterful backhand slices, first into Pliskova’s backhand and the second into the forehand corner that opened up the court. The Tunisian then guided a forehand winner down the line to win her first break point of the set and turn the match on its head.

US Open 2019 Ons Jabeur employs slice and drop shots learnt on football fields to push Karolina Pliskova to the brink

Ons Jabeur in action against Karolina Pliskova. Reuters

Only moments ago, the 25-year-old Jabeur had looked down and out. She had her knee strapped at the end of the first set, struggled with her movement and slipped to a 0-2 deficit in the second set. But the Tunisian broke the statuesque Pliskova’s serve in the fourth game and won four games on the trot to storm back into the contest.

The 6’1 Czech looked distinctly uncomfortable in the two-hour clash against Jabeur, who managed to slice the ball low and keep it out of Pliskova’s hitting zone. But her serve held strong in the closing minutes of the match for Pliskova to carve out a 6-1, 4-6, 6-4 victory and enter the fourth round of the US Open for the fourth consecutive year.

“It was a strange match,” admitted the World No 3, who looked like she had little left in the tank when she served for the match at 5-4 in the decider. “Once you're not feeling great... her game is not super nice to play because she plays kind of everything. In the end, (it was) good. It was big fight. Not for sure the best feeling but I won, which is good.”

While Pliskova is one of the two Czech women in WTA top 10, Jabeur is the only one from her continent competing in the field of 128 at the US Open.

The Tunisian, who reached a career-high of 54 in the WTA rankings in February, has been a torchbearer for Africa in tennis in recent times. In 2018, Jabeur became the first Arab woman to make a WTA final when she reached the title clash of the Kremlin Cup. And with the prospect of becoming the first Arab woman to crack the top-50 and make it to the fourth round of a Grand Slam, Jabeur played some inspired tennis in the last two sets: hitting 44 of her 49 winners.

On a sunny day in New York, Pliskova particularly felt the heat in the second set. Three of her service games went on for seven minutes or more, with Jabeur winning the first two -- both on the fifth breakpoints of the game.

As Pliskova’s first serve percentage dropped from 75 in the first set to 48 in the second, Jabuer’s star rose. Rather than forcing the issue, the Tunisian pried open the court with her subtle, varied and unpredictable game. But once she had backed Pliskova into a corner, Jabeur didn’t shy away from powering her groundstrokes, especially the forehand. She had a total of 21 winners in the second set, while the World No 3 reeled at 11 winners to 16 unforced errors. Even though Jabeur failed to serve out the set at 5-2, she broke Pliskova’s serve in the 10th game to pocket the set. The Tunisian finally converted on her fifth set point, drawing Pliskova to the net with a drop shot and finishing off the point with a gentle forehand pass. Jabeur was on her knees, in quiet celebration, and the crowd on their feet.

“She can hit anything from any part of the court, and the ball stays very low. It's not a game I love to play,” Pliskova, a former World No 1 said. “I don't even know if she knows what she's playing, and then it was quite difficult.”

But the Tunisian couldn’t quite carry the momentum into the third set. In the very first game, she lost serve despite being 40-0 up and failed to convert two break points on the Pliskova serve in the next game. The Czech, sensing the dip in level, started punching her groundstrokes harder and landing her first serves. She was two breaks and 4-1 up before the Tunisian found her footing again.

Jabeur regrouped, narrowed the advantage down to 4-3, and was a point away from levelling it 4-4. But a leaden-footed Pliskova, who seemed like she was fading, hung on to her last two service games dearly. She cracked a backhand winner (40th of the match) to draw an end to an intriguing clash.

“Physically, it was also very tough. But it's important to win, so I don't care how I feel,” Pliskova concluded. While the 27-year-old Czech, who made it as far as the US Open final in 2016, won a fourth-round match-up with Johanna Konta, braveheart Jabeur will return to the drawing board, or perhaps the football field, in the hope of creating more history.

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