Making the case for the Madrid Open semifinalists

MADRID, Spain — The semifinals are set at the Mutua Madrid Open, where Tunisia’s Ons Jabeur and American Jessica Pegula lead the seeds against Switzerland’s Jil Teichmann and surprise qualifier Ekaterina Alexandrova. 

The first semifinal sees No.10 Jabeur take on Alexandrova, who became the third qualifier to ever advance to the Madrid semifinals. Into her second WTA 1000 semifinal and first on clay, Jabeur is the highest-ranked member of Madrid’s final four. But here’s the twist: Alexandrova has won six of their seven prior meetings across all levels.

The second semifinal sees No.14 Pegula and Barcelona-born Teichmann face off for the first time under the lights. The American continues to prove herself to be one of the best players at the WTA 1000 level after advancing to her second consecutive WTA 1000 semifinal. But Teichmann is no rookie. The Swiss is into her third WTA 1000 semifinal and first since making the Cincinnati final last summer. 

Madrid Open quarterfinal results:

Here’s how Thursday’s semifinals stack up:

No.10 Ons Jabeur vs. No.45 Ekaterina Alexandrova

Case for Jabeur

A 6-1 head-to-head in favor of Alexandrova goes beyond a mere advantage and into the realm of domination. Jabeur has played Alexandrova on grass, on clay and on hard courts, and has lost on each surface. Some head-to-heads come with caveats, but there’s no getting around the fact that six out of seven matches going one way implies an inherent matchup issue.

Even so, unpacking the rivalry reveals how Jabeur has a shot. All six of the completed matches took place at ITF or qualifying level between 2016 and 2018 (the seventh was in Moscow last year, and ended in a Jabeur retirement). During this period of time, Jabeur drifted in and out of the Top 100 and typically only showed flashes of her peak form at a handful of tournaments each year. While she’s always had the hot shots, it wasn’t until 2020 that the Tunisian had the discipline to put them together in a coherent gameplan.

Since then, Jabeur’s commitment to fulfilling her talent has been illustrated in continuing improvements in every area, from her fitness to her fortitude. This week, she’s already beaten two players she’d never previously scored a completed win over, Belinda Bencic and Simona Halep. In those matches, Jabeur showed off her ability to shrug off scoreline setbacks; and to simultaneously simplify her game down to serve-and-forehand tennis when needed, while still leaving ample room for her trademark creativity. These are traits she didn’t possess when losing to Alexandrova half a decade ago.

Moreover, the Madrid conditions suit Jabeur to a tee. Faster clay than usual magnifies her power while still providing a canvas for her touch. And after an emotional loss to Bencic in the Charleston final – her fourth runner-up showing in five WTA title matches to date – Jabeur has used that sting to renew her drive. Against Halep, she was focused and ruthless. The opportunity to capture a WTA 1000 crown and embed herself even deeper in the Top 10 is so close Jabeur can taste it. — Alex Macpherson

Madrid: Jabeur puts on dropshot clinic, beats Halep to reach SF

2022 Madrid

Case for Alexandrova

Alexandrova will be the first to tell you she’s no clay-courter, but her results in 2022 would betray the assertion. Through three clay events, the 27-year-old has now made the semifinals of two big events, first in Charleston and now the biggest run of her career in Madrid. 

“I was kind of scared before the clay season because I didn’t know what to expect from myself. Clay for me is a difficult surface. I need time to prepare myself, but I didn’t have that much time before Charleston. And then it went so easily! I was surprised too. I want to keep the same feeling on the clay as long as possible and enjoy myself on the clay for the first time. I don’t hate it. I’m starting to like it!”

Alexandrova’s talent as a ball-striker is undeniable, but her movement has been the key to her success on clay this season. After struggling in the early part of the season on hard courts, where she said she felt lost on th court, Alexandrova has now found her groove. When she’s set up for a strike and not overthinking the moment, she can hit through anyone.

Not thinking too much has been the key to Alexandrova’s quick success on clay and she’ll employ the same strategy for her upcoming match against a familiar opponent. Alexandrova has won six of her seven meetings against Jabeur, but she insists she won’t be reading much into the head-to-head.

“She’s an amazing player,” Alexandrova said. “Every time I played against her it was super tough. The most recent match she didn’t finish it, so it’s hard to tell, and the previous matches were a long time ago.” — Courtney Nguyen

No.14 Jessica Pegula vs. No.35 Jil Teichmann

Case for Pegula

Another week, another deep run for Pegula at a WTA 1000 event. The American has shown remarkable consistency at the tour’s top level, having made the Round of 16 or better at 10 of the last 11 WTA 1000s and now booking her second consecutive semifinal, having done so in Miami last month. But Pegula’s comfort on the clay has been the real story in Madrid, where she has scored wins over Camila Giorgi (saving match point), Kaia Kanepi, Bianca Andreescu, and Sara Sorribes Tormo to make the biggest clay semifinal of her career. 

“I feel like I’m moving better on the clay than past years,” Pegula said. “I don’t think people think of me as a clay-court player. But especially here the conditions suit me more than other places. So I don’t think I’m surprised, but I’m happy that I’m here.”

Pegula’s growth on the surface began last spring in Rome where she defeated Daria Kasatkina, Naomi Osaka, and Alexandrova to make the quarterfinals. Since then, her physical and mental game have only grown in comfort and confidence. To beat Andreescu and Sorribes Tormo in straight sets, the 28-year-old’s discipline and tactical acuity were on full display. With an eye towards making her first WTA 1000 final, Pegula will face Teichmann’s all-court talents for the first time. 

“I don’t think even think we’ve practiced together,” Pegula said. “It’s a lot of unknowns.

“She’s one of those that I think why isn’t she ranked higher? It kind of annoys me. You need to be ranked in the Top 50 at least, Top 20 in my mind. She made the finals of Cincy, so it’s good to see she’s back and healthy. She’s lefty, so I’ll have to adjust to that but I’m playing well and I’m doing a good job of figuring it out when I’m out there. So I feel confident.” — Courtney Nguyen

Case for Teichmann

A breakthrough 2019 season marked Teichmann as a player to circle in clay-court draws. The Swiss player won her first two Hologic WTA Tour singles titles on the dirt in Prague and Palermo during a three-month span.

Injuries kept her from fulfilling her potential on the surface last year, but Teichmann made up for that by showing off her ability to excel at WTA 1000-level on any surface. Last year, she posted strong results at hard-court WTA 1000 events, making the Dubai semifinals and her biggest career final in Cincinnati.

This week in Madrid, Teichmann is putting it all together at a WTA 1000 clay-court event with aplomb. The World No.35 powered past higher-ranked Petra Kvitova, Leylah Fernandez, and Elena Rybakina without the loss of a set, making it known that it will take an exceptional performance to derail her clay-court wizardry.

Teichmann executed her game to top effect against Anhelina Kalinina in the quarterfinals. There, Teichmann used her thumping lefty forehand and solid serves to grit out key points in a number of close games, earning yet another straight-sets victory.

Teichmann must maintain that well-timed aggression against Jessica Pegula in their first meeting, as the American found stellar form to out-rally speedy Sara Sorribes Tormo on Wednesday. However, Teichmann knows the quicker clay conditions in Madrid bolster her chances.

“Here with the altitude, my serve is big,” Teichmann said, after her quarterfinal. “I get a lot of free points, and as well I get the first ball a bit easier than on the classic clay. Obviously I knew that the conditions as well with my heavy spin are great here. 

“But I did not think much about it. I just came here to play. I had a tough draw, anyway, so I just take it match by match, which I think is the most smart thing to do,” Teichmann added with a smile. — Jason Juzwiak

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