Ons Jabeur, an entertainer who could soon be a Wimbledon champion


Ons Jabeur, an entertainer who could soon be a Wimbledon champion

WIMBLEDON, England – In Tunisia, her home and inspiration, Ons Jabeur has earned the nickname “Minister of Happiness”.

Though there were many dark and bad times on her rare and winding road to Saturday’s Wimbledon singles final, she spread joy at the All England Club on Thursday.

Atop Henman Hill, the Guizanis, a Tunisian family living in London, cheered from their picnic blanket on the sloping lawn as Jabeur defeated Tatjana Maria of Germany 6-2 3-6 6-1 to become the first Arab became an African who reached a Grand Slam singles final in the Open era that began in 1968.

“It’s very important for women to be successful and to play sports,” said Ibtissem Guizani, who was attending Wimbledon for the first time with her husband Zouhaeir and their 4-year-old son and dressed in red in honor of Jabeur and Tunisia.

“See you in Ons,” she continued. “And she makes us proud of her and proud of us.”

Runner-up Jabeur and 103rd Maria had taken full advantage of the big screen in their semi-final match on Center Court: they frequently ventured into the lush, underused grass on the forecourt as they hacked approach shots and rushed into the net; hammered overhead; or caressed skillful drop volleys.

It was old school but hardly passé, and the crowd responded with roars and murmurs, not just for its element of surprise and novelty, but for its panache.

Jabeur in particular enjoys exploring the range of shotmaking opportunities in a way reminiscent of Roger Federer, to whom she has been compared since she was 12. Like Federer, Jabeur doesn’t just play the ball. She plays with it and not just with her strings. Land a tennis ball next to their feet and their soccer juggling skills will quickly become apparent.

She’s an entertainer who may soon be a Grand Slam tournament champion if she surpasses Elena Rybakina in Saturday’s final, but she wasn’t so taken with her victory on Thursday that she would forget Maria, her good friend .

Moments after Jabeur’s win, she insisted on sharing the spotlight rather than taking the usual route and greeting the crowd alone. She grabbed Maria’s wrist and, despite her protests, pulled her back onto the pitch and gestured in her direction to acknowledge Maria’s own unexpected journey to this semi-final as an unseeded 34-year-old mother of two young children.

“She’s such an inspiration to so many people, including me, coming back after having two babies,” Jabeur said. “I still can’t believe how she did it.”

Jabeur, 27, has worked hard to believe in himself. She came from a country and region that had produced some professional players – including Selima Sfar, a Tunisian who peaked at No. 75 in 2001 – but had never produced talent capable of competing for the biggest prizes to fight.

Jabeur has worked with sports psychologists since she was young, and in recent years has developed a particularly fruitful relationship with Melanie Maillard, a Frenchwoman introduced to her by Sfar who has worked with French tennis players and other sportspeople for more than 20 years.

“I’m very happy that I found the right person who was able to pull me through and get to know me a lot better,” Jabeur said. “It’s about the connection. We have done a great job and come a long way.”

Maillard was absent from this year’s French Open, where Jabeur, one of the favourites, was upset in the first round. But Jabeur has long planned to have Maillard back with him at Wimbledon. She dated Jabeur last year when they reached the quarterfinals, eventually falling in love with lawn tennis and telling Maillard: “I’m coming back to take the title.”

Now she’s just a game away.

“It’s rare that someone dares to say it and accept it,” Maillard said at Wimbledon on Thursday. “Ons was once a shy young woman. She matured through effort and through questioning and constantly searching for better approaches and solutions. She is very open and has a family that is very supportive. She has a husband who has accepted leaving everything for her, following her everywhere, and that’s powerful too.”

Born in the coastal town of Ksar Hellal, Tunisia, Jabeur was raised in a family of four children playing on courts at local hotels and a local club. Although her all-round sporting talent was tempted by coaches in other sports such as football and handball to lure her away, she stuck to tennis and left to train and study at the age of 13 at a sports school in Tunis, the capital.

Jabeur was a fan of Andy Roddick in her youth with her quick wit and always pretended to be Kim Clijsters, Serena or Venus Williams during her training.

She won the French Open junior title at 16 and trained for some time in Belgium and France, but has long since returned to Tunisia, where she lives with her husband Karim Kamoun, who is also her fitness coach. She remains deeply connected to the country.

“Now tennis in Tunisia is like soccer, people follow my games,” Jabeur said in a recent interview. “And I appreciate that so much, and I appreciate that tennis is becoming more and more popular. What has always been missing is that we need to believe more that we can do it no matter where you come from.”

Her lifelong association with Tunisia stands in stark contrast to Rybakina, her surprise opponent in Saturday’s final. Long considered a promising Russian junior, Moscow-born Rybakina started representing Kazakhstan four years ago but has continued to train regularly in Moscow.

Kazakhstan, a huge former Soviet republic, has recruited several top-flight Russian players since independence, giving talent like Rybakina the huge funding and support they often lacked.

Although Wimbledon has banned Russian and Belarusian players from this year’s tournament because of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the ban does not apply to Rybakina, a 23-year-old who on Thursday became Kazakhstan’s first singles Grand Slam finalist by winning the Wimbledon 2019 Champion Simona defeated Halep, 6-3, 6-3.

“I’ve played for Kazakhstan for a long time,” Rybakina said, noting that she has represented the country at the Olympics and the Billie Jean King Cup team competition.

“I’m really happy to represent Kazakhstan,” she said. “You believed in me. There’s no longer a question about how I feel.”

When asked if she still feels Russian at heart, Rybakina replied, “What does it mean to you to feel? I mean I play tennis so I enjoy my time here. I feel for the players who couldn’t come here, but I just enjoy playing here on the biggest stage, enjoying my time and doing my best.”

With her massive serve, long reach and penetrating baseline power, 17th-seeded Rybakina could be a formidable obstacle for Jabeur. This will be the first Wimbledon women’s final of the Open era between two players without a Grand Slam singles title, and neither Rybakina nor Jabeur had progressed past the quarterfinals at a Major in singles.

Saturday’s final comes on the same day that much of the Muslim world, including Tunisia, begins celebrating the Eid al-Adha holiday.

“If I can make it on this special holiday, one of my favorite holidays, it will be great,” Jabeur said.

The Guizanis, part of their growing Tunisian fan club, plan to be back at Henman Hill on Saturday.

“We will celebrate with Ons, inshallah,” said Ibtessem Guizani.

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