A Fan Favorite Is Still Trying to Clear Her Major Hurdle
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A Fan Favorite Is Still Trying to Clear Her Major Hurdle

Jun 17, 2023


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Ons Jabeur, the Tunisian player who is popular among spectators and fellow competitors, is the only woman to appear in three of the last five major singles finals. But she has lost them all.

By David Waldstein

Seven weeks was not nearly enough time to soothe Ons Jabeur’s emotional wounds. After losing the Wimbledon women’s singles final in July, she returned home to Tunisia to put some space between her and another painful loss in a Grand Slam tournament final — the third in her career, all in the past 14 months.

In the aftermath of that tearful defeat, Jabeur’s ubiquitous smile and easygoing humor are still there, and so is her refreshing honesty.

“They say time heals,” she said on Friday. “I’m still waiting a bit. The Wimbledon loss still hurts.”

Jabeur is the only woman to appear in three of the last five major singles finals. But with no titles to show for those runs, the pressure mounts for a player who is so popular with fans and competitors that many of them would be delighted to see her finally take home a winner’s trophy.

“She’s got the world on her shoulders, unfortunately,” said Billie Jean King, who won 12 major singles titles in the late 1960s and early 1970s, including four U.S. Opens. “She is so nice. Everybody loves Ons. Everybody. So of course I’d like her to win and get that monkey off her back, because she is a real pioneer for her continent and her country.”

Born and raised in Tunisia, Jabeur became the first Arab woman to win a WTA Tour title, at the 2021 Birmingham Classic in England, when she was 26. A year later, at Wimbledon, she became the first African woman to reach a Grand Slam tournament final, and later that summer, she was the first African and first Arab woman to get to a U.S. Open final.

The world cheered her on, and continues to do so, both for her trailblazing accomplishments and her magnetic personality. In almost every match, she is favored by the majority of spectators, many of whom yearn to see her win the most coveted titles. Even outside her country, she is a sentimental favorite.

“I do feel that,” she said last week, “especially when I step on a tennis court, most of the people cheering for me. That’s a privilege. It’s a positive thing. I don’t think anyone would hate that. But I do take it as a great energy.”

Jabeur developed into an elite player relatively late in her career, and did not break into the top 20 of the singles rankings until Aug. 16, 2021. Her 29th birthday is Monday, the day before she faces Camila Osorio, a Colombian ranked 68th, in the first round of the U.S. Open. It is realization that helps her cope with the disappointment of going 0-3 in major finals. Sometimes, it just takes time.

Always ready with a quick one-liner and often poking fun at herself and others in a playful way, Jabeur elicits smiles wherever she goes. At the recent tournament near Cincinnati, Iga Swiatek, the world’s top-ranked player, lamented the vicious messages she receives on social media after certain matches, often from disgruntled gamblers. They will sometimes lash out at players, even after the players win, because it was not by enough to win a bet. Swiatek said she had received abuse for winning a match in three sets instead of two.

“I believe these people should not exist,” Jabeur said in support, then added, “But, yeah, next time, Iga, don’t lose a set.”

She was joking, of course. And she is one of the few players who can make such a comment without incurring the wrath of fellow players. They know how she is and recognize her wit. Before she lost to Aryna Sabalenka in a quarterfinal on Aug. 18 in Ohio, Jabeur referenced her victory over Sabalenka at Wimbledon a month earlier.

“I know she didn’t forgive me for Wimbledon semifinals,” Jabeur said with a smile.

But when the match commenced, Jabeur injured her right foot. An athletic trainer taped it tightly and Jabeur finished the match, but she was not moving well, raising concerns for how she would fare at this U.S. Open, where she is seeded fifth. Sabalenka, despite their rivalry and despite Jabeur’s cheeky comment about not being forgiven for Wimbledon, was sympathetic toward her popular opponent.

“I’m a little bit sad for Ons,” she said. “I really hope she’ll recover fast and she’ll be ready for the U.S. Open.”

Jabeur was not specific when asked about her foot injury on Friday. She did, however, account for a slight bit of congestion heading into the tournament.

“American A.C. kills me,” she said about the air-conditioning.

Jabeur was also asked about practicing with Marketa Vondrousova, who played the villain by beating Jabeur, 6-4, 6-4, in the Wimbledon final in July. Was the practice session an attempt by Jabeur to exorcise some demons?

“Tried,” she said. “It did not work.”

Her humor accounts for much of her popularity. But so do her tears. Sometimes the entire tennis world aches for Jabeur.

After she lost to Vondrousova at Wimbledon, she broke down during her on-court interview, evoking heart-wrenching memories of Andy Murray and Jana Novotna, who each cried on the same court after losing finals. Jabeur called it the most painful loss of her life, and it was plain to see. Her vulnerability in the moment, allowing the world to grasp how much it all meant to her and how painful it was to leave so many supporters disappointed, made Jabeur an even more sympathetic figure.

Andy Roddick, the 2003 U.S. Open men’s champion and one of Jabeur’s favorite players when she was a child, messaged her after Wimbledon and urged her to take time to recuperate — advice she followed. Roddick also told her he had more faith in her eventually winning Wimbledon than he had had in himself (that was probably because Roddick had to contend with Roger Federer, who beat Roddick in three Wimbledon finals and one U.S. Open final). Roddick discussed his admiration for Jabeur in his blog after the loss.

“She’s someone I really hope wins a Grand Slam title at some point,” he wrote.

But with each successive loss, the challenge grows more daunting and the pressure grows. Playing for so much and knowing that millions of people look to her to find inspiration is a weighty responsibility, indeed.

“During a match she’s got to find a way not to be thinking about the world at all,” King said. “Just the ball and you. One ball at a time, in the now, play every point. She’s got to stay there for the whole match. It’s the only way she’s got a chance.”