During the first week of Wimbledon, Ons Jabeur had to carry the weight of his continent on his back. Now the 27-year-old Tunisian faces the added burden of being the new Wimbledon favourite. But the way he survived five set points before defeating Elise Mertens 7-6(9), 6-4 in a thriller suggests he has the enthusiasm – and the grit – to make history.
Sometimes I was already nervous, especially during the first set. But that was understandable. On the surface, this match was for a place in the quarterfinals. But both women understood that it was for much more.
The bottom half of the draw is so weak – weaker, in fact, than former US Open champion Tracy Austin can remember at this stage – that they knew a win here would put an arm into Saturday’s final.
How could she not when the remaining three 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? Not surprisingly, Jabeur now sees a huge opportunity. “I’ve set my sights very high for this tournament, so I’m going to keep doing it,” he said. “No matter who comes, I’m going to build the fight, I’m going to fight until the end because I really want the title.”
At last year’s US Open, Mertens had triumphed in two tight sets. This time, Jabeur’s flashiest game paid off. But it was a closed thing. After three breaks in the first three games, Jabeur appeared to be in control at 4-2 up. But the Belgian broke before a convincing set went into a tie break of extreme quality.
It seemed to go in the way of Mertens as he went up 6-3. But then Jabeur saved four set points before a winner on the wrong foot put her ahead 8-7. But Mertens was not finished. He first hit a massive backhand down the line, then a 118mph serve, to go up 9-8 and earn a fifth set point. Once again, Jabeur held on with a series of big winners before taking down a throbbing set 11-9.
Jabeur was even more upbeat after breaking to go 2-0 up early in the second set, only for Mertens to immediately come back. Both players continued to play high-quality tennis, and hold serve, until 5-4. That’s when Mertens, who hasn’t beaten a player ranked in the top two in the world in six attempts, faced the pressure of having to hold serve from him to survive. It proved too much as the Belgian double-faulted on match point.
“It was stressful and enjoyable,” Jabeur said. “She is a great opponent. It’s never easy to play against her and I had to dig deep in that tiebreaker. But I love to play on the grass. I love the connection with nature and with myself, and I hope it continues until the final.”
Across Court No 1, Tunisian flags waved with delight. Jabeur’s story loses nothing by retelling it. Having broken into the top 50 at the start of 2020, she last year became the first Arab player, male or female, to be ranked in the top 10 in the world. Now, with the departure of Iga Swiatek, she is one of the favorites to become the first Arab or African. she player to win a Grand Slam title.
When asked about being a pioneer afterward, Jabeur said: “It’s not easy. But I love this sport. I want to see more players from the African continent here. I want them to believe in themselves more and believe that they can be here. I don’t come from a rich family. So you really have to stop looking for excuses and go for it.”
Next for Jabeur will be the Czech Bouzkova, who beat Caroline García 7-5, 6-2. Bouzkova was part of the doubles team with Sara Sorribes Tormo that faced Jabeur and Serena Williams at Eastbourne, so she understands how good Jabeur is on grass.
“I know Ons very well,” Bouzkova said. “Very nice girl and one of the most talented on the tour. Ons is tough to play on grass with all the spin on her, but she can basically do anything. Lots of drop shots. Her game is so much fun.”
On this evidence, who would dare to argue?