During the first week 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 favorite at Wimbledon. But the way she survived five set points to beat Elise Mertens 7-6 (9), 6-4 in a thriller suggests she has the drive — and nerve — to make history.
It was already nervous in places, especially in the first set. But that was understandable. At first glance, it was a match for advancement to the quarterfinals. But both women understood that it was much more than that.
The bottom half of the draw is so weak – weaker, in fact, than former US Open champion Tracy Austin can ever remember at this stage – that they knew a win here would put a hand into Saturday’s final.
How could they not, when the three remaining players in the bottom half – Marie Bouzková, Jule Niemeierová and Tatjana Maria – are all unseeded? And between them they have a combined ranking of 266? No wonder Jabeur now senses a huge opportunity. “I’ve set my goals very high for this tournament, so I’m going to keep doing that,” she said. “No matter who comes, I’m going to fight, I’m going to fight until the end because I really want the title.”
Last year at the US Open, Mertens triumphed in two tight sets. This time, Jabeur’s flashier play paid off. But it was a narrow-minded affair. After three breaks of serve in the first three games, Jabeur looked to be in control at 4-2. But the Belgian prevailed before the convincing set went into a tie-break of extreme quality.
It seemed to be going Mertens’ way as she led 6-3. But then Jabeur saved four set points before a misplaced winner gave her an 8-7 lead. But Mertens wasn’t done. First she hit a massive backhand down the line, then a 118 mph serve to lead 9-8 and claim the fifth set point. Yet Jabeur again held out with a string of huge winners before taking a pulsating set 11-9.
Jabeur was even more cheerful after the break, leading 2-0 at the start of the second set – only for Mertens to come right back. Both players continued to play quality tennis – and hold serve – until 5-4. By then, Mertens, who had not beaten the world number two in six attempts, faced pressure to hold her serve 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. She is never easy to play and I had to go very deep in that tie-break. But I love playing on grass. I love the connection with nature and with myself and I hope to continue until the final.”
Tunisian flags flew enthusiastically over court No. 1. Jabeur’s story loses nothing in its retelling. After breaking into the top 50 in early 2020, last year she became the first Arab player, male or female, to be ranked in the world’s top 10. Now, following the departure of Iga Swiatek, she is the favorite to become the first Arab or African player. player to win a Grand Slam title.
When Jabeur was later asked if he would become a pioneer, he 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 in themselves more and believe that they can be here. I don’t come from a rich family. So you really have to stop making excuses and go for it.”
Next for Jabeurová will be Češka Bouzková, who defeated Caroline Garcia 7-5, 6-2. Bouzková was part of the doubles team with Sara Sorribes Tormo that faced Jabeur and Serena Williams in Eastbourne, so she understands how good Jabeur is on grass.
“I know Onse really well,” said Bouzková. “A really nice girl and one of the most talented on the tour. Ons is tricky to play for sure on grass with all his spin, but he can basically do anything. Many drop shots. Her acting is really fun.”
On this evidence, who would dare argue?