WIMBLEDON, England (AP) — Ons Jabeur’s steady progress from year to year — up the tennis rankings, through the draws of various tournaments and, now, at Wimbledon — has carried her to a Grand Slam singles final, the first Africana or Arab woman to make it that far in the professional era.
The No. 3-seeded Jabeur, a 27-year-old from Tunisia, got past her good friend Tatjana Maria 6-2, 3-6, 6-1 in an up-and-down semifinal at a sun-splashed Centre Court on Thursday.
On Saturday, Jabeur will face another player making her major final debut, No. 17 seed Elena Rybakina of Kazakhstan, for the championship. Rybakina overwhelmed 2019 Wimbledon champion Simona Halep 6-3, 6-3 in the second semifinal.
After a surprising first-round loss at the French Open in May, Jabeur is on quite a run right now: She has won 11 consecutive matches, all on grass courts, and 22 of her past 24. Since pro players were first admitted to major tennis tournaments in 1968, never had an African or Arab woman been to a final.
“I’m a proud Tunisian woman standing here today. I know in Tunisia, they’re going crazy right now. I just try to inspire, really, as much as I can,” she said. “I want to see more and more — not just Tunisian — Arab, African players on tour. I just love the game and I want to share this experience with them.”
The men’s semifinals are Friday, with three-time defending champion and No. 1 seed Novak Djokovic facing No. 9 Cameron Norrie of Britain, and 22-time Grand Slam winner Rafael Nadal against unseeded Nick Kyrgios. Nadal shed doubt on whether he’d even be able to show up for his semifinal after struggling through a five-set victory over Taylor Fritz on Wednesday.
Nadal held a limited practice session Thursday, mostly sticking to forehands and backhands. When he did try serving, which was a real problem a day earlier, he did so without using full force or throwing his body behind his deliveries.
Jabeur has been rising in the tennis world in recent seasons. In 2020, at the Australian Open, she became the first Arab woman to reach the quarterfinals at a major. Last year produced all sorts of milestones: first Arab player to break into the top 10 of the men’s or women’s rankings, first Arab to win a WTA title and a quarterfinal appearance at Wimbledon.
Now she’s done that two steps better.
“I really don’t know what to say. It’s a dream coming true from years and years of work and sacrifice. I’m really happy it’s paying off,” Jabeur said through a wide smile. “One more match now.”
When she closed out the biggest victory of her career, she and Maria — a 34-year-old mother of two from Germany who is ranked 103th — met at the net for an extended hug. Jabeur whispered something in her pal’s ear. Then, after depositing her racket on the sideline, Jabeur returned to the middle of the court for the usual victor’s wave to the crowd — except, instead of going alone, she playfully tugged Maria along with her, an uncommon gesture.
“I definitely wanted to share the moment with her at the end, because she’s such an inspiration for so many players, including me,” Jabeur said. “Coming back after having two babies — I still can’t believe how she did it.”
Rybakina, never beyond a major quarterfinal until now, leads the tour in aces this year and added five to her total Thursday. More surprising was the way Halep never got going, especially on her serve, double-faulting nine times.
Halep had won her past 12 matches at the All England Club, a streak that began with her title run three years ago. Wimbledon was canceled in 2020 because of the coronavirus pandemic, and Halep was unable to compete a year ago because she tore her left calf muscle.
Before their semifinal, Jabeur and Maria stood beside each other, waiting to take the walk through the halls of the stadium that lead to the court. Close as they are, the pair avoided exchanged any glances or chatter.
Close friends, yes. On this day, opponents, too, with quite the setting, stage and stakes.
Neither had been to a Grand Slam semifinal previously. Maria never had been past the third round in any of her 34 prior appearances at major tournaments — and she only got that far once, at Wimbledon in 2015.
The two hang out together frequently. They are, to use Jabeur’s term, “barbecue buddies.” Jabeur knows Maria’s two daughters so well that the German referred to her as “Aunt Ons.”
“She’s part of our family,” Maria said.
Maybe that’s why neither played displayed much in the way of emotion during the match, even after terrific points. Sure, Jabeur put her hands on her hips and Maria smiled sheepishly after one lively exchange with both at the net. And Jabeur held her left fist overhead after one particularly difficult yet effective running, twisting forehand across her body for a passing winner. Maria raised her right arm after going up 5-2 in the second set.
They offer unusual brands of speed-mixing, variety-filled tennis. On the second point of the match, Jabeur won a point by using a drop shot on a return of serve. Maria loves to hit slice forehands; Jabeur, quite capable of powerful groundstrokes, joined in on that occasionally.
After such a strong first set, Jabeur was far less effective in the second. Perhaps it hit her just how close she was to getting to the final.
Suddenly, mistakes began accruing rapidly. Her serving was less self-assured. Maria took full advantage. And then, just as suddenly, Jabeur switched back to her best self, pulling out to a 5-0 edge in the third in 20 minutes.
After 17 unforced errors in the second set, Jabeur made a remarkably low total of three the rest of the way. Maria simply could not keep up.
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