The headline match on Day Three of the Dubai Duty Free Tennis Championships lived up to its top billing as top seed Simona Halep recovered from a slow start to beat Tunisian wildcard Ons Jabeur 1-6, 6-2, 7-6 inside a raucous Centre Court Stadium.
This second round match attracted the biggest crowd of the week so far as Romanian and Tunisian tennis fans packed out the arena. As luck would have it, opposing supporters were largely on opposite sides of the stadium – dozens of blue, yellow and red Tricolorul Romania flags on one side, just as many red and white Tunisia flags on the other.
And boy, did both sets of supporters make their voices heard, the back-and-forth continuously reverberating around the venue, before, during and after the match.
“It was like a football match or a Fed Cup match,” Halep said. “I didn't really realise what was going on around the court. Everyone was with a lot of energy so we had to give our best. I think it was a great match.”
Battle lines drawn, it was the Tunisian supporters who first had plenty to cheer as Jabeur came flying out of the blocks. The world No 45 was rewarded for her aggression and greater intent when she broke Halep for a 3-1 lead. Jabeur doubled her advantage in the sixth game, before comfortably closing out the set on serve.
Halep fans refused to be silent, though, as chants of “Si-Mo-Na! Si-Mo-Na!” before the second set appeared to jolt the world No 2 into action. After a subdued first set, Halep found her rhythm and range in the second, moving into a 3-0 lead as the errors started to accumulate on the Jabeur racket.
Those errors proved costly in the fifth game when Jabuer led 0-40 only for Halep to rattle off four straight points to hold serve. Another break in the very next game gave Halep total command of the second set, although Jabeur continued to fight and claimed one of the breaks back.
However, the Tunisian’s hard work was swiftly undone after a lackluster service game gift-wrapped the set to Halep.
The momentum swing – which could be most accurately measured by which fans were in louder song – was firmly with Halep and the Romanian top seed immediately broke for a 2-0 lead in the decider. It was an advantage she held until the seventh game when Jabuer came roaring back, breaking to love and sending the Tunisian supporters into raptures.
The Arab and North African support then went fever pitch when Jabuer broke again for a 6-5 lead. The match and a place in the quarter-finals was now on her racket. But the drama was not over yet, as Halep produced one of her best games of the match to emphatically break back to love.
The drama and tension spilled over into the decisive tiebreak as Halep squandered three match points when leading 6-3. Jabuer then had her first match point on her own serve, only for a tight forehand to end up in the net. A carbon-copy error on the next point brought up Halep’s fourth attempt to seal the victory and this time she made no mistake as Jabuer sent a forehand long.
“After a long period that I didn't play matches, after that semi-final that I lost in Australia, I'm really happy that I could just fight till the end and to turn it around,” Halep said. "It was up-and-down a lot because she doesn't give rhythm. It was very weird, but I'm happy I could win."
Next up for the 2015 Dubai champion is seventh seed Aryna Sabalenka from Belarus, who defeated Belgium’s Elise Mertens 6-4, 6-3.
Halep holds a 2-1 win-loss record over Sabalenka, although the world No 2 lost their most recent meeting in straight sets at the Adelaide International just last month.
“[Sabalenka] is a very strong opponent,” Halep said. “So, I will have to also be strong, play my game, and believe I can win. In Australia I didn't touch the ball that much in that match. But tomorrow is a new day.”