Wimbledon, England. In Tunisia, her home country and source of inspiration, Ons Jabeur earned the nickname “Minister of Happiness”.
Although there were many dark and difficult times on her rare and tortuous path to Saturday’s Wimbledon singles final, she spread joy throughout the English club on Thursday.
On Henman Hill, the Tunisian Gizani family living in London cheered from their picnic blanket on the sloping lawn as Jabeur defeated Germany’s Tatiana Maria 6-2, 3-6, 6-1 to become the first Arab or African to reach Grand Slam singles final in the Open Era, which began in 1968.
“It is very important for women to be successful, to play sports,” said Ibtisem Ghuizani, who visited Wimbledon for the first time with her husband Zuhair and their 4-year-old son and wore red in honor of Jaber and Tunisia.
“We see ourselves in Us,” she continued. “And she makes us proud of her and proud of us.”
Jaber, who placed second, and Maria, who placed 103rd, used the whole big canvas in their semi-final match on Center Court: they often took to the lush, little-used grass in the front yard when they landed close shots and threw themselves into the net; pounded overhead; or caressed with deft volleys.
It was old school but barely passed, and the crowd responded with roars and murmurs, not only because of their element of surprise and novelty, but because of their panache.
Jabeur, in particular, enjoys exploring the range of shooting possibilities in a manner reminiscent of Roger Federer, to whom she has been compared since she was 12 years old. Like Federer, Jabeur doesn’t just play ball. She plays with him and not only with her strings. As soon as a tennis ball lands near her feet, her soccer juggling skills will quickly become apparent as well.
She’s an artist who could soon become a Grand Slam champion if she beats Elena Rybakina in Saturday’s final, but she wasn’t so engrossed in her victory on Thursday that she forgot about Maria, her good friend.
Moments after Jabert’s victory, she insisted on being the center of attention instead of cheering the crowd alone as usual. She grabbed Maria by the wrist and dragged her back onto the court despite her protests and gestured gratefully in her direction to mark Maria’s unexpected journey to this semi-final as an unseeded 34-year-old mother of two young children.
“She is an inspiration to so many people, myself included, who are coming back from having two kids,” Jabeur said. “I still can’t believe how she did it.”
Jaber, 27, has worked hard to believe in herself. She comes from a country and region that has produced several professional female players, including Selima Sfar, a Tunisian who reached No. 75 in the rankings in 2001 but never had a talent capable of claiming the biggest prizes.
Jabeur has worked with sports psychologists since she was a teenager, and in recent years has developed a particularly fruitful relationship with Melanie Maillard, a French woman introduced to her by Sfar, who has worked with French tennis players and other athletes for over 20 years.
“I was very lucky that I found the right person who was able to help me and get to know me a lot better,” said Zhaber. “It’s all about connection. We’ve done a lot of work and come a long way.”
Maillard was absent from the French Open this year, where Jabert, one of the favorites, got upset in the first round. But Jabeur had long planned for Mayar to return with her to Wimbledon. She was with Jabeur last year when she reached the quarter-finals, finally fell in love with grass tennis and told Maillard, “I’m coming back for the title.”
Now it’s only one match away.
“It’s rare that someone dares to say it and dares to accept it,” Maillard said Thursday at Wimbledon. “Once we were a shy young woman. She has matured through the efforts and constant search for 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 is also strong.”
Born in the coastal town of Xar Hellal in Tunisia, Jabeur grew up in a family of four playing courts at local hotels and at a local club. Although coaches in other sports such as football and team handball tried to lure her away, coaches in other sports such as football and team handball tried to lure her away, but she became interested in tennis and left to train and study in sports. school in the capital of Tunisia at the age of 13.
Jaber, with her resourcefulness, was a fan of Andy Roddick in her youth and pretended to be Kim Clijsters, Serena or Venus Williams during training.
She won the French Open at the age of 16 and trained in Belgium and France, but has long since returned to Tunisia, where she lives with her husband Karim Camoun, who is also her fitness trainer. She is still deeply connected to the country.
“Now tennis in Tunisia is like football, people follow my matches,” Jabeur said in a recent interview. “And I really appreciate it, and I appreciate the fact that tennis is becoming more and more popular. What’s always been missing is that we have to have more faith that we can do it, no matter where you’re from.”
Her lifelong commitment to Tunisia stands in stark contrast to Rybakina, her surprise opponent in Saturday’s final. Rybakina, who was born in Moscow and has long been considered a promising Russian junior, began representing Kazakhstan four years ago while continuing to train regularly in Moscow.
A huge former Soviet republic, Kazakhstan has recruited several high-profile Russian players since independence and provided talent like Rybakin with significant funding and support that they often lacked.
While Wimbledon Russian and Belarusian players banned 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 the first Grand Slam finalist in Kazakhstan, beating 2019 Wimbledon champion Simona Halep6-3, 6-3.
“I have been playing for Kazakhstan for a long time,” Rybakina said, noting that she represented the country at the Olympics and in the team standings of the Billie Jean King Cup.
“I am very happy to represent Kazakhstan,” she said. “They believed in me. There is no longer a question of how I feel.”
Asked if she still feels Russian in her heart, Rybakina replied: “What does it mean to you to feel? I mean, I play tennis, so I like spending time here. I sympathize with the players who couldn’t make it here, but I’m just enjoying playing here on the biggest stage, enjoying my time and doing my best.”
With her powerful serve, long reach and punching power on the backline, No. 17 Rybakin could be a serious handicap for Zhaber. It will be the first women’s Wimbledon final in the Open era between two players without a Grand Slam singles title, and neither Rybakina nor Zhaber have yet made it to the quarter-finals of a major singles event.
Saturday’s final comes on the same day that most of the Muslim world, including Tunisia, begins to celebrate Eid al-Adha.
“If I do it on this special holiday, actually one of my favorites, that would be great,” Jaber said.
Guisani, part of her growing Tunisian fan club, plans to return to Henman Hill on Saturday.
“We are going to celebrate with Ons, inshallah,” said Ibtessem Gizani.