Ons Jabeur may not abide by on-court convention, but with her flair-embroidered shot selection hopes she can pave the way to a new convention in which more African women are rising through the tennis ranks.
A concoction of heart and charisma will always be rewarded with Wimbledon crowd appreciation, of which the Tunisian has earned in abundance over the past week after dazzling with her drop-shot genius, powerful forehand strokes, trickery and copious grit.
The No 21 seed will now carry her feather touch into a meeting with 2020 French Open champion Iga Swiatek as the first Arab woman ever to reach the fourth round at the All England Club.
No other player has won more games than her and Aryna Sabalenka with 32 apiece so far on the 2021 WTA Tour, Jabeur recently becoming the first Arab woman to win a title by defeating Daria Kasatkina in the final of June’s Birmingham Classic to follow up her feat as the first Arab player to clinch a junior Grand Slam since 1964 at Roland Garros in 2011.
With every triumph the 26-year-old creaks the door open a little wider for a demographic with limited success stories from which to take inspiration. Her expertise have never been in question, but perhaps now Jabeur is beginning to manifest and believe a winning Grand Slam mentality.
“Ons I would say is one of my favourite people on tour, honestly she’s just breaking down barriers,” said Venus Williams ahead of their second-round matchup.
“You’re gonna see a whole other generation of women from North Africa coming into tennis. It’s going to be all owed to her.”
It spoke volumes to the lure of Jabeur’s enchanting style when she won over a naturally Venus-heavy crowd on her way to beating the 41-year-old 7-5 6-0, one modern trailblazer overcoming a woman that helped transform the sporting landscape.
Negotiating a Williams serve, she conjured an exquisite sliced backhand drop-shot with almost enough back-spin to pull it back over the net, coach Issam Jellali by now well-tuned to the importance of accommodating and cultivating rather than suppressing his player’s creativity.
Just two games into her 5-7 6-3 6-2 third-round win over 2017 Wimbledon champion Garbine Muguruza she displayed phenomenal court coverage and improvisation by reshuffling her feet to the Spaniard’s attempted-passing shot, scurrying right and stretching out her racket to guide home a stunning around-the-post winner.
Then serving for the set at 5-3 up, Jabeur found herself trailing 0-40 before responding emphatically with 16 consecutive points to level the match and put herself in command in the decider.
— Wimbledon (@Wimbledon) July 2, 2021
She is an advocate for traditional tennis standing the test of time.
Serena Williams’ coach Patrick Mouratoglou came with good intentions last summer as he launched UTS, an innovative and intriguing shorter format of the game designed to enhance the appeal of tennis to new and younger fans.
But with the expansiveness and artistry of players like Jabeur, the sport as most know it can yet continue to delight.
“She’s tricky, because she has a great touch,” said upcoming opponent Swiatek. “She’s using that really in a smart way on grass. She can play slices, she can play flat balls, she can play top spins. She has like a wide range of options.”
It’s the little things, too. Like the keepie-uppies with her feet between points, the ridiculous behind-the-back pike jump forehand she played on a dead ball against Muguruza, the endearing ‘oh my god’ reaction to a tweet from childhood hero Andy Roddick after her win in Birmingham, the untraditional volume of drop-shots, the net-skimming slices. Adjacent to the pursuit of silverware, she is having fun and wants the rest of us to have fun.
Oh my God 😱 thank youuuuu 🥰🥰🥰 https://t.co/2bsZp7QQoD
— Ons Jabeur (@Ons_Jabeur) June 20, 2021
At the same time, she is more than willing to embrace the job of leading the fight for others. That pressure and responsibility perhaps being evidenced against Muguruza when she retreated to the back of the court to throw up while facing match point. A couple of points to re-compose later and she had chalked up a famous win.
Jabeur described it as the best day in her career to date.
“It means a lot,” she said. “Especially so many Arab people watching me and supporting me. I’ve received a lot of messages from different people. It’s amazing. But I don’t want the journey to stop here. I want it to continue.
“I mean, hopefully whoever is watching, I hope that so many of the young generation is watching, and I can inspire them. Hopefully one day I could be playing with a lot of players next to me.”
— Ons Jabeur (@Ons_Jabeur) July 2, 2021
Earlier in the week Jabeur spoke of her desire to one day see groups of women from the likes of Tunisia, Egypt and Morocco competing as is seen with countries such as France, America, Australia and so on, admitting it is ‘not easy’ to be the only Arab on tour.
In 2017 she became the second Arab woman and first in 15 years to break into the world’s top 100 and has since become the highest-ranked Arab player in WTA history. More will follow because of her.
Prior to Jabeur fellow Tunisian Selima Sfar had been the only Arab woman to rank inside the top 100, reaching a career-high of 75 in 2001 and appearing in the second round at three of the four Grand Slams as well as competing at the Olympics on two occasions.
Jabeur, meanwhile, noted how she has been in contact with former Moroccan men’s player Hicham Arazi, who peaked at number 22 in the world in 2001 and finished his career with one ATP title and four Grand Slam quarter-final appearances.
“It’s interesting, because I really don’t watch a lot of tennis even before when I was young, you know,” she said. “I think my husband watched more than me, and he was more obsessed about Roland Garros more than me, and tennis.
“I think I grew up with a goal in my head to really be one of the good players. It was like very, very personal for me. Of course I know about Selima, I know about the Moroccan, but I didn’t have a chance to watch them play. It’s funny because everybody compares me to Hicham Arazi, which actually I’m talking to him and he’s very nice and he’s given me a lot of advice.
“I mean, it’s an honour for me. They really inspired me, and I am trying to do the same here.”
Standing in her way is a so-far rampant Swiatek that barely shifted out of first gear while dropping just five games over her round two and three matches, the latest of which being a 6-1 6-0 win over Irina-Camelia Begu in just 55 minutes.
The Pole comes with a growing Grand Slam pedigree having reached the second week in six of the 10 majors she has competed at. But in Jabeur she faces a crafty and driven hurdle that exhibited stern mental resilience to fend off a Muguruza fight back late in the third set.
While thanking the Centre Court crowd for their atmosphere in the third round Jabeur strived to reassure that her sentiments were genuine and not a ploy to retain their support come Monday.
But she need have no concerns about a Wimbledon crowd that has fallen in love with her.