Ons Jabeur, 27, went from remarkable to more remarkable becoming the first Arab woman and the first African woman in a Grand Slam final when she beat her dear friend Tatjana Maria of Germany, 6-2, 3- 6, 6-1. She and Maria, 34, hugged for a long time at the net, after which Jabeur, forgoing the usual reminder of the winner alone on the pitch, led Maria there with her in hand so that the crowd could cheer the two . Then, Jabeur bragged Maria in an on-court interview for, among other things, reaching her first Grand Slam semi-final after giving birth twice.
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It lit up new worlds around the world – if Jabeur hadn’t already done so by winning a big second-tier game in Madrid this year and reaching world No. 2. It helped set up a final of nationalities that would have looked fantastic a generation ago: Tunisia versus Kazakhstan. Indeed, Jabeur will play the final on Saturday against Elena Rybakina, the 23-year-old Russian who took Kazakh nationality in 2018 and defeated 2019 champion Simona Halep, 6-3, 6-3, in the other semi-final. .
“I want to go further, to inspire many other generations,” Jabeur said during his press conference. “Tunisia is connected to the Arab world, is connected to the African continent. The area, we want to see more players. It’s not like Europe or any other country. I want to see more players from my country, from the Middle East, from Africa. I think we didn’t believe enough at one point that we could do it. Now I’m just trying to show that. Hope people take inspiration from it.
Tunisia, the tiny North African country of 12 million with a good history in football and the Olympics, remained an unenlightened place on the tennis globe when Jabeur picked up a racket at age 3 years old with the encouragement of her mother, Samira, in her hometown Ksar Hellal near the Mediterranean coast. By age 9, Jabeur had moved away with her family to Sousse, also on the coast, and the youngster was telling people she was aiming to win the French Open one day.
“Everyone laughed at me,” she said Thursday.
At 13, she had traveled to the capital, Tunis, to train at a national sports academy, and by 16, she had won the French Open junior singles title. By the end of 2017, she had reached the top 100; at the end of 2020, the top 50; and by the end of 2021, the top 10, up there in his country’s history with sports stars like four-time Olympic medalist Mohammed Gammoudi (men’s athletics), London 2012 gold medalist Habiba Ghribi (running women’s obstacle course) and Rio de Janeiro 2016 bronze medalist Marwa Amri (women’s wrestling), not to mention the Tunisian men’s football team which is about to compete in the World Cup for the sixth time. Jabeur joined that pantheon with a smart game that has the full toolkit of moves (all on display Thursday) and with an essence that made her something else: beloved.
Maria has referred to her at various times as “such a great person” and “an amazing person” and “a really open person”, and as the quarter-final here ended on Tuesday, Republic’s Marie Bouzkova Czech welcomed Jabeur with open arms on several steps. before the hug. “She’s number two in the world,” Maria said, “and she’s still the same person she was many years ago.”
In her country, she has a nickname: “Minister of Happiness”.
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“Yeah, I mean, it’s nice of them to call me that,” she said Thursday. ” It’s really unbelievable. Maybe they’re considering having a minister of happiness. It’s funny because [an] the real minister calls me, ‘Hello, minister.’ It’s funny. It is sometimes difficult in Tunisia. When they see my matches, always say that sport unites people. I’m glad they follow me. They push me to do better. I hope I can keep it [minister] title forever.
It almost seemed harsh, then, that her first Grand Slam semi-final after two previous quarter-finals found her facing Maria, a 103rd-ranked player who considers Jabeur “part of the family”. So when they were done, after Jabeur had played the kind of masterful third set that a strong mind can summon – 10 winners, three unforced errors – they hugged and Maria said, “I’m so happy for you. ” They had their moment together, not apart, and Maria left waving amid grateful cheers.
“She has to barbecue me now,” Jabeur quickly told the crowd, “to make up for all the running.” And: “I love seeing Tatjana like this on the pitch, and let’s not play anymore.” And, to thunderous cheers: “I am a proud Tunisian standing here today. I know in Tunisia they are going crazy right now.
Then the friendship and sportsmanship continued because Jabeur started talking about Maria: “If I didn’t see her two children, I would say that she never had children. It’s amazing how she moves on the pitch. It’s really inspiring for many women.
“Yeah, I hope I can send this message,” Maria said, “that I have two kids and I’m on this stage. I think anything is possible. I’m 34, have two kids and I am playing my first semi-final at Wimbledon… Even as a family, you can have a career and you can continue.
Then, back to the subject of the winner: “I mean, she’s also such an inspiration, yes, to a lot of women on this planet.”
She, Jabeur, completed her initial ascent with a new ascent. She talked here about her mental coach, meditation, better breathing. “I talk a lot about how nice it is to release the feelings, all the stress,” she said. “Its very important.” She spoke on Thursday about childhood heroes Kim Clijsters, Serena Williams, Venus Williams and Andy Roddick and recent counselor Billie Jean King.
“She always tells me ‘one ball at a time’ and focus on that,” Jabeur said, quickly adding: “I always remember her during the game, actually, when the score is like I was behind or something.”
Yet until the previous Wimbledon, when she reached the quarter-finals beating Venus Williams, Garbine Muguruza and Iga Swiatek, she hadn’t nurtured the Wimbledon dream. (The French Open, you know.) Then on Thursday, she got a deciding set in the semis and roared to 5-0 with just one game to go. Then she sat down and wiped her face and adjusted her blindfold while the chair umpire said, as is customary after the substitutions, “Time.”
She’s out and two games later it might as well have meant time for new kingdoms in the world – or time for, like King, another trailblazer.