September 29, 2022

WIMBLEDON, England – In Tunisia, his country of origin and his inspiration, Ons Jabeur has earned the nickname “minister of happiness”.

Although there were plenty of dark and difficult moments along her rare and winding road to the Wimbledon singles final on Saturday, she spread joy around the All England Club on Thursday.

On Henman Hill, the Guizanis, a Tunisian family living in London, cheered from their picnic blanket on the sloping lawn as Jabeur beat Tatjana Maria of Germany, 6-2, 3-6, 6-1, to become the first Arab or African woman to reach a Grand Slam singles final in the Open era, which began in 1968.

“It’s very important for women to be successful, 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 was dressed in red in the honor of Jabeur and Tunisia.

“We see each other in Ons,” she continued. “And she makes us proud of her and proud of ourselves.”

Jabeur, ranked second, and Maria, ranked 103rd, had used the full canvas in their semi-final match on center court: they frequently ventured into the lush, underused grass of the forecourt as they cut off approach shots and rushed to the net; pounded overhead; or skilful caressed volleys.

It was old school but barely outdated, and the crowd responded with roars and murmurs, not just because of their element of surprise and novelty, but because of their panache.

Jabeur, in particular, enjoys exploring the range of filming possibilities in a way reminiscent of Roger Federer, who she’s been compared to since she was 12. Like Federer, Jabeur doesn’t just play the ball. She plays with and not only with her strings. Let a tennis ball land near his feet, and his football juggling skills also quickly become apparent.

She’s a performer who could soon be a Grand Slam champion if she manages to overtake Elena Rybakina in Saturday’s final, but she wasn’t so engrossed in her victory on Thursday to forget Maria, her good friend.

Moments after Jabeur’s win, she insisted on sharing the spotlight instead of going the normal route and waving to the crowd on her own. She squeezed Maria by the wrist and carried her back to the pitch despite her protests and pointed gratefully in her direction to acknowledge Maria’s unexpected journey to this semi-final as the 34-year-old unranked mother of two youngsters. children.

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

Jabeur, 27, worked hard to believe in herself. She came from a country and region that had produced professional players – including Selima Sfar, a Tunisian who reached a 75 ranking in 2001 – but had never produced a talent capable of fighting for the biggest. price.

Jabeur has worked with sports psychologists since he was a teenager and has developed a particularly fruitful relationship in recent years with Mélanie Maillard, a Frenchwoman introduced to him by Sfar, who has worked with French tennis players and other athletes for more than 20 years.

“I’m very lucky to have found the right person who could push me through and get to know me much better,” Jabeur said. “It’s all about the connection. We have done a great job and we have come a long way.

Maillard was not at Roland-Garros this year, where Jabeur, one of the favorites, was upset in the first round. But Jabeur has long planned to bring Maillard back with her to Wimbledon. She was with Jabeur last year when she reached the quarter-finals, finally fell in love with lawn tennis and told Maillard: “I’m coming back for the title.”

Now she is just one game away.

“It’s rare that someone dares to say it and dares to accept it,” Maillard said Thursday at Wimbledon. “Ons was once a shy young woman. She matured through effort and by questioning herself and constantly seeking better approaches and solutions. She is very open-minded and has a very supportive family. She has a husband who has agreed to leave everything for her, to follow her everywhere, and that too is powerful.

Jabeur, born in the coastal town of Ksar Hellal in Tunisia, grew up in a family of four playing on the courts of local hotels and a local club. Although her versatile athletic talent had coaches in other sports like football and team handball trying to entice her, she remained loyal to tennis and left to train and study at a sports school in Tunis. , the capital, at the age of 13.

Jabeur, with her quick wit, was a fan of Andy Roddick in her youth and pretended while she was training that she was Kim Clijsters or Serena or Venus Williams.

She won the Roland-Garros junior title at 16 and has spent time training in Belgium and France, but has long since returned to Tunisia, where she lives with her husband, Karim Kamoun, who is also his physical trainer. It remains deeply linked to the country.

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

His lifelong attachment to Tunisia contrasts with Rybakina, his surprise opponent in Saturday’s final. Rybakina, born in Moscow and long considered a promising Russian junior, began representing Kazakhstan four years ago while continuing to train regularly in Moscow.

A sprawling former Soviet republic, Kazakhstan has recruited several top Russian players since its independence and provided talents like Rybakina with major funding and support that they often lacked.

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

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

“I’m really happy to represent Kazakhstan,” she said. “They believed in me. There are no more questions about how I feel.

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

With his huge serve, long reach and penetrating base power, 17th seed Rybakina could be a formidable obstacle for Jabeur. This will be the first women’s Wimbledon final of the Open era between two untitled Grand Slam singles players, and neither Rybakina nor Jabeur had advanced beyond the quarter-finals of a major tournament in singles so far.

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 succeed during this special holiday, one of my favorites in fact, it will be great,” Jabeur said.

Les Guizanis, part of his growing Tunisian fan club, plan to return to Henman Hill on Saturday.

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