In the meeting of close friends and amid a backdrop of wholesome vibes on Centre Court, it was Ons Jabeur who was able to balance a clinical and creative game to put away Tatjana Maria and reach the Wimbledon final. A semi-final between two players with remarkable stories, and the humility to recognise each other’s achievements, also led to an entertaining duel of slice, spin and angles, eventually won by the world No 2 Jabeur 6-2 3-6 6-1 in an hour and 43 minutes.
In doing so, Jabeur becomes the first woman from Africa and first Arab player to reach a grand slam final, where she will face Elena Rybakina on Saturday. The Tunisian’s early form at the All England Club set her out as a contender for the title, even before Iga Swiatek’s exit, and although she was favourite to defeat the world No 103 Maria, the German mother-of-two loves a comeback and refused to be counted out.
Not only had Maria returned twice to the sport after giving birth, the latest just last year, but she has also fought from a set down three times in reaching the semi-finals as a 34-year-old. Only Billie Jean King, Martina Navratilova, Chris Evert, Venus William and Serena Williams are able to say the same, and her resilience forced a deciding set and ensured a fun and engaging semi-final also developed a competitive edge.
Maria’s devious backhand slice forced Jabeur to conjure a series of improvised winners and when the 26-year-old was able to stem a mounting number of errors early in the third, it provided the platform for what is a groundbreaking victory. Jabeur broke twice in the third to stomp out any threat of another Maria comeback and while this was not a faultless display from the No 3 seed, she delivered enough flashes to suggest a first grand slam title may be about to arrive.
“It’s a dream coming true,” Jabeur said. “I'm a proud Tunisian woman standing here today. I know in Tunisia they're going crazy now! I just try to inspire as much as I can. I want to see more Arab and African players on tour. I love the game and want to share the experience with them." After the long hug at the net, Jabeur also turned to point to Maria in recognition of her run, sharing the moment.
The good spirits had also remained throughout the match, with Jabeur applauding any Maria winner that passed her into the corners. Maria’s return to the championships following the birth of her second child, only to reach her first grand slam semi-final, has been the unexpected story of the tournament. In Jabeur, she faced an opponent who has become close with her two children, nine-year-old Charlotte and the one-year-old Cece, while they travel with her mother on tour.
“They are adorable kids,” Jabeur said, the familiarity built over barbecues and visits to Maria’s home. The 27-year-old also arrived with a compelling story, though, and has been playing for more than herself at Wimbledon. Despite the pressure of paving new ground and the expectation of her nation, Jabeur has not been afraid to declare that she is targeting more than that at the All England Club but the challenge here would be putting friendship aside.
It was a task Jabeur took to immediately, pressuring the Maria service game from the off and displaying a a greater variety in her play. While the tricky backhand slice of Maria and grit of the German’s game had been enough to shock top seeds Maria Sakkari and Jelana Ostapeno and the talented Jule Niemeier, Jabeur was able to match it while also attacking on the forehand.
Jabeur created three opportunities on the opening Maria serve but the break was swiftly followed in the following game as Jabeur outlasted the 34-year-old on the next rally of low, cutting backhands over the net. Jabeur had different weapons and her ability to mix up her approach led to several entertaining exchanges in the opening stages. The second break followed, and with it the first set, as Jabeur served out to love.
Maria faced further break points early in the second set but steadied to save them, with her growing ascendancy at the net helping the German to then break Jabeur’s serve. Jabeur was able to hit a spectacular number of passing winners from the baseline but Maria’s level was more consistent. A forehand into the net from Jabeur brought set point and although she was able to save them, Maria levelled the match when her opponent sliced into the net.
It was Jabeur’s 17th unforced error of the set but it was her winners from the back of the court that was the prevailing factor in the decider as she found the early breakthrough. Maria’s forehand broke down as she sliced into the net and Jabeur spotted the gap to dispatch the clipped forehand winner. Jabeur would put away Maria’s resistance ruthlessly and without sentiment, although the friendship remained until the end.
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