During the first week of Wimbledon Ons Jabeur had to carry the weight of her continent on her back. Now the 27-year-old Tunisian faces the added burden of being the new Wimbledon favourite. 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 nerve – to make history.
It was nervy at times already, especially during the first set. But that was understandable. On the surface this match was for a place in the quarter-finals. But both women understood that it was for far more.
The bottom half of the draw is so weak – weaker, in fact, than the former US Open champion Tracy Austin can ever remember at this stage – that they knew that a victory here would put one arm into Saturday’s final.
How could it not when the three remaining players in the bottom half – Marie Bouzkova, Jule Niemeier and Tatjana Maria – are all unseeded? And between them they have a combined ranking of 266? No wonder Jabeur now senses an enormous opportunity. “I have set my goals very high for this tournament, so I’m going to keep doing that,” she said. “No matter who’s coming, I’m going to build the fight, I’m going to fight till the end because I really want the title.”
At the US Open last year Mertens had triumphed in two tight sets. This time round Jabeur’s flashier game paid off. But it was a close‑run thing. After three breaks of serve in the first three games, Jabeur looked to be in control at 4-2 up. But the Belgian broke back before a compelling set went to a tie-break of extreme quality.
It looked to be going Mertens’s way as she went 6-3 up. But then Jabeur saved four set points before a wrong‑footing winner took her 8-7 ahead. But Mertens was not finished. First she hit a massive backhand down the line, then a 118mph serve, to go 9-8 up and earn a fifth set point. Yet again Jabeur resisted with a series of huge winners before taking a pulsating set 11-9.
Jabeur was even more buoyant after breaking to go 2-0 up at the start of the second set – only for Mertens to come right back. Both players continued to play high-quality tennis – and to hold serve – until 5-4. It was then that Mertens, who has not beaten a player ranked in the world’s top two in six attempts, faced the pressure of having to hold her serve to survive. It proved too much as the Belgian double-faulted at match point.
“It was stressful and enjoyable,” Jabeur said. “She is a great opponent. It is never easy to play her and I had to dig very deep in that tie-break. But I love playing on grass. I love the connection with nature and me and hopefully will continue all the way to the finals.”
Across No 1 Court Tunisian flags waved in delight. Jabeur’s story loses nothing in its retelling. Having made the top 50 in early 2020, last year she became the first Arab player, man or woman, to be ranked in the world’s top 10. Now with the departure of Iga Swiatek, she is a favourite to become the first Arab or African player to win a grand slam title.
Asked about being a trailblazer afterwards, Jabeur said: “It is 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 rich family. So you have to really stop finding excuses and go for it.”
Next up for Jabeur will be the Czech Bouzkova, who overcame Caroline Garcia 7-5, 6-2. Bouzkova was part of the doubles team with Sara Sorribes Tormo who faced Jabeur and Serena Williams in Eastbourne, so she understands just how good Jabeur is on grass.
“I know Ons really well,” Bouzkova said. “Really nice girl and one of the most talented on the tour. Ons is tricky to play for sure on grass with all her spins but she can basically do anything. Many drop shots. Her game is really fun.”
On this evidence, who would dare argue?