During the first week of Wimbledon Ons Jabeur had to carry the weight of his continent on his back. Now the 27-year-old Tunisian faces the added burden of being Wimbledon’s new favorite. But the way she survived five set points before defeating Elise Mertens 7-6(9), 6-4 in a thriller suggests she has the verve – and the guts – to make history.
He was nervous at times already, especially in the first set. But it was understandable. Ostensibly, this match was for a place in the quarter-finals. But the two women understood that it was for much more.
The bottom half of the draw is so weak – weaker, in fact, than former US Open champion Tracy Austin will ever remember at this point – that they knew a win here would put an arm in Saturday’s final.
How could that not be the case when the three remaining players in the bottom half – Marie Bouzkova, Jule Niemeier and Tatjana Maria – are all unranked? And between them, they have a combined ranking of 266? No wonder Jabeur now senses a huge opportunity. “I set myself very high goals for this tournament, so I will continue to do so,” she said. “No matter who comes, I’m going to build the fight, I’m going to fight until the end because I really want the title.”
At the US Open last year, Mertens triumphed in two tight sets. This time, Jabeur’s flashier play paid off. But it was a tight thing. After three service breaks in the first three games, Jabeur looked to be in control at 4-2. But the Belgian turned back before a convincing set went to a tie-break of extreme quality.
It seemed to go Mertens’ way as she went up 6-3. But then Jabeur saved four set points before a wrong-footed winner took it in front 8-7. But Mertens was not finished. First she hit a huge backhand down the line, then a 118mph serve, to go up 9-8 and earn a fifth set point. Again Jabeur held off with a huge winning streak before winning a thrilling set 11-9.
Jabeur was even more dynamic after the break to lead 2-0 early in the second set – only for Mertens to come right back. Both players continued to play high quality tennis – and hold serve – until 5-4. It was then that Mertens, who failed to beat a player ranked in the top two in the world in six attempts, faced the pressure of having to hold serve to survive. It turned out to be too much as the Belgian double faulted on match point.
“It was stressful and enjoyable,” Jabeur said. “She’s a great opponent. It’s never easy to play her and I had to dig really deep in that tie-break. But I love playing on grass. I love the connection with nature and me and I hope to continue until the final.
On Court No. 1, Tunisian flags waved with joy. Jabeur’s story loses nothing in its narrative. After breaking into the top 50 in early 2020, last year she became the first Arab player, male or female, to be ranked in the world’s top 10. Now, with the departure of Iga Swiatek, she is favorite to become the first Arab or African player. player to win a Grand Slam title.
Asked about being a trailblazer afterwards, Jabeur said, “It’s not easy. But I love this sport. I want to see more players from the African continent here. I want them to believe more in themselves and believe they can be here. I don’t come from a wealthy family. So you really have to stop looking for excuses and go for it.
Next up for Jabeur will be Czech Bouzkova, who beat Caroline Garcia 7-5, 6-2. Bouzkova was part of the doubles team with Sara Sorribes Tormo who faced Jabeur and Serena Williams at Eastbourne, so she understands how good Jabeur is on grass.
“I know Ons very well,” Bouzkova said. “A really nice girl and one of the most talented on the tour. Ons is hard to play for sure on the grass with all her tricks, but she can pretty much do anything. Lots of drop shots. Her game is really fun.
On this proof, who would dare to argue?