By Hanya El Ghetany
“In tennis, there is only one winner, but it was a great experience for me, and I’m looking for my next final.”Ons Jabeur after losing the 2022 Wimbledon final to Elena Rybakina
It has been 63 days since Jabeur started her Wimbledon final post-match press conference with this positive outlook. Little did she know, she would be playing another major final a couple of weeks later. Jabeur’s run in New York has been nothing short of phenomenal. She won her first three rounds against three Americans, beating Madison Brengle (7-5, 6-2), Elizabeth Mandlik (7-5, 6-2) and Shelby Rogers (4-6, 6-4, 6-3). When Rogers had a 4-3 lead in the second set of their match, Jabeur stole the frame by winning 12 of the next 13 points. During the changeover, Rogers requested a medical timeout and then returned to the court looking noticeably out of sorts. In the third set, Jabeur promptly broke Rogers twice to go out to a 4-0 lead with some excellent strength and baseline defence. She then went on to beat Veronika Kudermetova (7-6, 6-4), Ajla Tomljanović (6-4, 7-6) and Caroline Garcia (6-1, 6-3) to face world number one and Roland-Garros champion Iga Świątek in the final.
Jabeur was rather consistent throughout the tournament, having only dropped a set against Rogers in the third round. She played close to a perfect match against Garcia. She was serving incredibly throughout and always in total control of the match. It almost seemed to look like Garcia was just reacting to what Jabeur was doing on court. Garcia had been in excellent shape this summer, having won three titles and returning to the top 10, but it was obvious from afar that the 28-year-old was uncomfortable in the most important match of her career. The first set was over in 23 minutes, with six aces from Jabeur and 14 unforced errors from Garcia. Garcia attempted to defend herself at the beginning of the second set after dropping her first set in the tournament, but Jabeur was dominating, and Garcia was still giving up too many free points. Her big night was turning into a horror show as her serve, which had been so strong during the fortnight, was dismantled. In about an hour, Jabeur had become the first Arab and North African woman to reach the U.S. Open final.
The Tunisian left Wimbledon with a lot to learn from and a lot to look forward to. “I was trying to win my serve at the beginning, but then I felt like I was going really fast, even making some mistakes. I felt like she was playing better in the second and third set because she was making less mistakes. I was expecting myself to return better and take the opportunities that I had to break her so many times. It is frustrating to play someone who serves really big and doesn’t give you the chance sometimes to take that break, but it wasn’t meant to be.” This is how Jabeur described her final against Rybakina last summer. She said to the line of reporters waiting to ask her questions that she had the Wimbledon trophy as her wallpaper, now she was going to think about replacing it with the U.S. open trophy. She got on her flight for the U.S. swing with a pair of titles under her belt and two finals to learn from, Wimbledon and a loss to Swiatek in Rome. And today, on September 10th, 2022, Jabeur was once again playing a final to achieve her long-lived dream.
Neither Jabeur nor Swiatek reached the final by accident. It was a natural achievement, a product of years of hard work. In Jabeur’s case, you don’t get into the final of two consecutive majors by accident, and Swiatek has dominated the tour this year, what with her 37-match winning streak midseason. Projecting these two in the final pre-tournament would not have surprised anyone. With their head-to-head at 2-all before the final, both players had a solid chance to grip the trophy.
The Wimbledon final was valuable experience for Jabeur in terms of holding a lead, but in this match, Swiatek refused to let her get ahead. Even when Jabeur broke, it would merely be to get back on serve rather than to build a lead. For most of the final, it looked like Jabeur had mentally lost the match, too frustrated to get much going. It felt like she was thinking of the unforced errors before they happened. In about an hour and 15 minutes, Iga was already leading a set (6-2) and up 3-0 in the second. Jabeur said ‘There is only one winner in tennis’ and that statement is 100% correct. No matter how brilliantly you play throughout the tournament, if you lose the final, that’s it, you weren’t the ultimate winner.
Perhaps thinking of that very possibility, Jabeur expertly clung on to save her serve at 0-3 and soon had the set back on serve. The match was a rollercoaster in that second set; just when it seemed one-sided for Iga, Jabeur tried to change things around. Jabeur’s resilience led to her winning five games in a set in a final match against Świątek, the first time this had happened since the world number one lost her 1st WTA final at 2019 Lugano. At this point, both players were visibly nervous. Even those who have played a dozen major finals seem to get nervous in the tense moments. At 6-5 and 40-30 to Świątek, Jabeur saved the first championship point and forced the second set into a tiebreak. At 6-5 in the breaker, after a nerveless forehand winner at 4-5, Świątek was once again at championship point, and this time Jabeur misfired. Świątek had her third major title.
Jabeur’s season has been extraordinary, with a lot of firsts along the way. She won her first WTA 1000 title in Madrid. She won her first WTA 500 title in Berlin. She made the final in Rome. She reached her first Wimbledon final and her first U.S. open final. On Monday, she will be the new world number two. She is the first Arab and North African man or woman to achieve all these things. She moved a lot of mountains during this season to achieve her dreams, and she moved them for a lot of youngsters in her region to follow in her footsteps. She needs to think about how to climb Everest next. Her goal next year will understandably be to win a major, oh, and figure out a way to beat Iga.
It is reasonable how frustrated she must feel right now, having lost two major finals in a row, but once the moment has time to settle, she should feel great pride as well, in addition to motivation for 2023. Her match against Świątek was a tough one. She was playing the best player in the world. Managing to fight so well in the second set was a great improvement from the Rome final against Świątek earlier this year. Looking at the positives, I am hoping that her 2023 will be equally extraordinary, with a first major title. Her resilience shines so brightly on court, and I hope that this resilience remains equally strong off court and she doesn’t give up on achieving her dreams. Everyone who has read Jabeur’s story and followed her progress and watched her get closer to her dreams understands how much it will mean for her if she wins a major. Just keep pushing, Ons Jabeur. You’re almost there.