Tunisia’s Ons Jabeur makes history at Wimbledon

WIMBLEDON, England — Enough waves of good feeling swept through Center Court on Thursday afternoon that it was difficult to unravel, not that anyone with a heart would mind. Suddenly, and all in one mighty embrace at the net, they piled up: the latest possibility in an impossible tale, expanding the possibility to new regions of the world, a high-flying sportswoman show, and a mother of two hoping other women might see her and a little get more momentum.

Ons Jabeur, 27, had gone from remarkable to more remarkable as she became the first Arab woman and first African woman in a Grand Slam final as she defeated dear friend Tatjana Maria of Germany 6-2, 3-6, 6 : 1 defeated. She and Maria, 34, had shared a long hug at the net after which Jabeur, who eschewed the usual winner’s curtain on the pitch, led Maria by the hand outside with her for the crowd to applaud both. Then, in an on-court interview, Jabeur praised Maria, among other things, for reaching her first Grand Slam semi-final after giving birth twice.

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It has lit up new worlds within the world if Jabeur hadn’t already done so by winning a big runner-up in Madrid this year and reaching world No. 2. It helped set up a nationalities final that would have looked fantastic a generation ago: Tunisia versus Kazakhstan. That’s because last Saturday Jabeur will play Elena Rybakina, the 23-year-old Russian who took on Kazakh citizenship in 2018 and defeated 2019 champion Simona Halep 6-3, 6-3 in the other semifinal.

“I want to grow bigger, to inspire many more generations,” Jabeur would say in her 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 in Europe or other countries. I would like to see more players from my country, from the Middle East and from Africa. I think at a certain point we didn’t believe enough that we could do it. Now I’m just trying to show that. Hopefully people will be inspired.”

Tunisia, the small North African country of 12 million with a strong history in football and Olympics, remained an unlit spot on the tennis ball when Jabeur, at the age of 3, with encouragement from her mother Samira, picked up a racquet in her birthplace of Ksar Hellal the hand took near the Mediterranean coast. By the age of 9, Jabeur and her family had moved an hour away to Sousse, also on the coast, and the girl was telling people she wanted to win the French Open one day.

“Everyone laughed at me,” she said on Thursday.

At 13 she had gone to the capital, Tunis, to train at a national sports academy, and by 16 she had won the juniors’ singles title at the French Open. She had reached the top 100 by the end of 2017, the top 50 by the end of 2020 and the top 10 by the end of 2021, at the top of her country’s history with sports stars such as four-time Olympic medalist Mohammed Gammoudi (men’s athletics), gold medalist of London 2012 Habiba Ghribi (women’s steeplechase) and Rio de Janeiro 2016 bronze medalist Marwa Amri (women’s wrestling), not to mention the Tunisian men’s soccer team that is close to the World Cup for a sixth time. Jabeur joined that pantheon with a clever game that brought the full toolbox of shots (all to see Thursday) and with an essence that turned them into something else: lovers.

Maria has referred to her as ‘such a great person’, ‘an amazing person’ and ‘a really open person’ at various times, and when the quarterfinals ended here on Tuesday, Czech Republic’s Marie Bouzkova welcomed steps forward with arms wide open 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 is really incredible. Maybe they are thinking about having a Minister of Fortune. It’s funny because (an) actual minister calls me, “Hello Minister.” It’s funny. Sometimes times are hard in Tunisia. When they see my games, they always say that sports unite people. I’m glad you follow me. They push me to do better. Hopefully I can keep the (ministerial) title forever.”

It seemed almost harsh, therefore, that her first Grand Slam semifinal after two previous quarterfinals found her against Maria, a 103rd-ranked player whom Jabeur considers “part of the family”. When they finished, after Jabeur played a masterful third movement that a strong mind can evoke – 10 winners, three unforced errors – they hugged and Maria said: “I’m so happy for you.” They had their moment together , not separated, and Maria walked away waving to approving cheers.

“She has to make me a barbecue now,” Jabeur soon told the crowd, “to make up for all that racing.” And: “I love to see Tatjana on the pitch like that, and let’s not play again.” And with loud cheers: “I’m a proud Tunisian who is here today. I know they are going crazy in Tunisia right now.”

Then the friendship and athleticism continued, because Jabeur spoke of Maria: “If I didn’t see her two children, I would say that she never had the children. It’s amazing how she moves on the court. It’s really inspirational for a lot of women.”

“Yes, I hope that I can send this message,” said Maria, “that I have two children and that I am on this stage. I think anything is possible. I’m 34 years old, I have two children and I’m playing my first semi-final at Wimbledon… You can also have a career and move on with your family.”

Then back to the topic of the winner: “I mean, she’s such an inspiration too, yes, for a lot of women on this planet.”

She, Jabeur, has crowned her original rise with another rise. She spoke here about her mental coach, about meditation, about breathing better. “I talk a lot about how nice it is to let the feelings out, all the stress,” she said. “It is very important.” She opened up about childhood heroes Kim Clijsters, Serena Williams, Venus Williams and Andy Roddick on Thursday, and recent adviser Billie Jean King.

“She’s always telling me ‘one ball at a time’ and focus on that,” said Jabeur, soon adding: “I always remember her during the game when the result is like I’m behind or something.”

However, she hadn’t harbored the Wimbledon dream until last Wimbledon, when she reached the quarter-finals against Venus Williams, Garbine Muguruza and Iga Swiatek. (The French Open, you know.) On Thursday, she came to a crucial set in a semifinal and roared to 5-0 with just one game resulting in a two-score. She then sat down, dried her face and adjusted her headband while the chair umpire said, as usual after the change, “Time.”

She walked out, and two games later he might as well have had time to explore new areas of the world—or, like King, another pioneer.

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