On one side, the Russian home favourite, Daria Kasatkina, ranked 14, and at 21 years old, one of the most improved women on the tour in 2018.
The expressive Kasatkina, who has used her exciting all-court skills to reach the quarters of two Majors and the finals of Dubai and Indian Wells this year, was runner-up in Moscow in 2017. And so successful had her season been that her run this week had sealed one of the two Alternate places at the WTA Finals in Singapore.
On the other side was the 101-ranked Ons Jabeur, who did not win a main-tour match until reaching the second round at Wimbledon. Indeed she won only five main-tour matches altogether this season—and one of those was via the retirement of Simona Halep in Beijing.
But she had enjoyed some wins at ITF level, and arrived in Moscow with a lot of tennis in her legs, after qualifying for the main draws in Beijing, Hong Kong and Moscow in the space of a fortnight.
And once in Moscow, she blossomed: she beat Ekaterina Makarova, No3 seed Sloane Stephens, No8 seed Anett Kontaveit, and No5 seed Anastasija Sevastova, where the Tunisian dropped her first set of the tournament to reach her first final. Not only that, this was the first final run ever by a Tunisian.
Seven years ago, Jabeur broke new ground when she won the junior Roland Garros title, and went on to play for Tunisia at the 2012 Olympics. But it was in the Rio Olympics that she played Kasatkina on the only previous occasion—and it was a thriller, a 3-6, 7-6(4), 6-1 win to the teenage Russian.
And this would match it.
Jabeur immediately showed the form that had dominated much higher ranked women this week, plying her swinging serve, flat power from the baseline, sliced backhand, drop shots and many ventures to the net. And the winners piled up for the Tunisian, who took the partisan and vocal Russian crowd in her stride.
After an early exchange of breaks, Jabeur pressured Kasatkina into another break for a 4-2 lead, and broke again to take the first set, 6-2.
Again, after an initial exchange of breaks, Jabeur’s aggressive tennis earned her another break and a 4-1 lead. But the Tunisian’s big winner count was now being matched by her error count, and Kastakina levelled for 4-4. They tussled their way to a tie-break, and from 3-3, the Russian reeled off the set, 7-6(3).
Yet again, there were early breaks, first to Kasatkina for 2-0, and then a wayward serving game handed back the advantage.
With two hours on the clock, though, Jabeur began tire—no surprise given the number of matches she had played to get here. And the two women were running each other ragged with drop-shots, angles, and touch at the net.
Increasingly, Jabeur’s matches seemed to catch up with her, and the errors continued to mount. She continued to outstrip the Russian in winners—21 off the forehand, compared with a fifth from Kasatkina to threaten in the sixth game. Jabeur held on, and they were locked at 92 points apiece as Kastakina held for 4-3.
Now the legs began to struggle on the Tunisian side, and she resorted more and more to energy saving tactics. She telegraphed a drop-shot to her opponent who outplayed her at the net for three break points, and a final netted drop-shot from Jabeur gave up the break. Kasatkina would serve for the title.
Jabeur went for outright winners, and a firecracker forehand return of serve earned a break-back point. A Russian error, and it was back to 5-4. However, the Tunisian could not even sit down at the change of ends, so tight was her left thigh. She stretched and grimaced—the writing was, sadly, on the wall.
Sure enough, she could barely get a serve into play, and tears sprang into her eyes. Kasatkina could not fail to win that last game, 6-4, but it was a muted victory. She lifted her arms to the crowd, but then headed to the other side of the net where Jabeur was bent double in pain. They embraced, and then the new champion—now into the top 10 for the first time—helped Jabeur to her chair.
The Moscow tournament puts on a fine show before the award ceremony, but Kasatkina finally had her moment:
“It was a dream of mine since childhood, to win the Kremlin Cup in front of my crowd. I’m so happy, I still can’t believe it. I have to go to the airport now, but I’m still happy.”
She referred, of course, to her dash to Singapore to take her place, literally, among the elite of her sport. She may not be called upon to play, but if not this year, she will surely take her place among the The Eight next time around.
As for Jabeur, she too looked as though she belonged much higher up the ranks than the number by her name suggests. She will, in fact, now leap close to 60, a career high by some margin. She said:
“I’m very happy that I made it to the final. Eight matches was kind of long for me coming from qualifying… It wasn’t meant to be today—maybe it’s a little bit lack of experience. But this is my first final so hopefully I can have many more and win some titles.”
So here’s to 2019, for both Kasatkina and Jabeur.
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BIOGRAPHY: Ethan Hazard
BIOGRAPHY: Daniel Sturridge