Six elite tennis players took to centre court on the opening day of the Mubadala World Tennis Championship on Friday, but for most of the spectators inside the International Tennis Centre, there was only one star in town.
Ons Jabeur has been a draw whenever she plays in the UAE — being a barrier-breaking, trailblazing figure for Arab sport will generally have that effect.
In recent years, though, the Tunisian's immense popularity has spread beyond the region.
Being the second-best female tennis player in the world and a finalist in the two most recent Grand Slams have certainly helped raise her profile. But beyond the achievements and accolades, Jabeur is just pure entertainment.
Her unorthodox, eye-catching style, emotional swings, perfectly executed volleys — with both feet and racquet — and the rollercoaster on-court drama she so frequently delivers all contribute to making Jabeur's matches a must-see.
And this was all on full display in Abu Dhabi on Friday night in her match against 2021 US Open champion Emma Raducanu. It may have been an exhibition — albeit played at a highly competitive level — but the crowd were treated to the full Jabeur package right until the very last point.
Initially, the Tunisian looked to be cruising to victory when she led 4-1 in the first set. Then came a prolonged drop in concentration which allowed Raducanu back into the contest as the Briton reeled off four straight games to steal the set.
Jabeur quickly regrouped, though, and levelled the match following a closely contested second set, the only difference proving the solitary break of serve she earned in the sixth game.
So, much like 12 months ago and Jabeur's debut against Belinda Bencic, the match went to a third-set super tiebreak, and just like 12 months ago, Jabeur won the see-saw decider 10-8, delivering the thrills right to the end.
Indeed, the penultimate point of the match encapsulated the very best of Jabeur, who slapped a passing forehand winner down the line to bring up match point. As the crowd — about 20 or so waving Tunisia flags — roared and gasped in delight, Jabeur pumped her fist in the air, urging the crowd for more.
“She’s great to play against, especially in matches like this where she brings a really fun element,” Raducanu said of Jabeur. “She can play all sorts of trick shots and really play to the crowd. The atmosphere was great to play in and she obviously contributed to that.”
Raducanu also contributed to a thoroughly enjoyable spectacle. The 20-year-old shot to stardom last year with her historic run to the US Open title, but her first full year on tour has been somewhat blighted by injury, with the latest, a wrist problem, keeping her sidelined since the start of October.
Despite the lengthy layoff and time away from a match court, Raducanu was in strong form, striking the ball cleanly and moving around the court well. Staying fit is now the number-one priority.
“I think I played better than I expected,” Raducanu said. “I started hitting balls two weeks ago before needing to take a short break and restarted only yesterday, so I’m pleased.”
Day 1 at MWTC 2022
After her successful return to Abu Dhabi — having been a late replacement last year for Raducanu, who tested positive for Covid-19 shortly before the tournament — Jabeur must surely be one of the first names on the MWTC call sheet for the foreseeable future.
“I tried to remember to have a bit more fun on the court because that’s when I played my best and I did that,” Jabeur said.
“There were a lot of Arab people out there supporting me and that was great, it was so much fun. This is my second year coming here; I really enjoy playing on this court. I’m ready to come back next year.”
Perhaps it could even be time to consider expanding the one-off women's match and transforming it into a tournament of its own to be played alongside the men's.
Since it was first played in 2017 between Serena Williams and Jelena Ostapenko, the women's match has been a huge success, often drawing the biggest crowds and creating the best atmospheres on the tournament's opening day.
Logic would suggest expanding it over three days and involving more top stars from the WTA Tour would only enhance the experience, although how that might work logistically is best left to the organisers.
Ultimately, whatever presence female tennis has at MWTC moving forward, so long as Jabeur is involved, it will remain one of the highlights of the weekend.