It has been a breakthrough year, and Ons Jabeur, whom her fellow Tunisians have nicknamed the Minister of Happiness, brought some more sunshine to her country and her season on Thursday night.
Her opponent in the U.S. Open women’s singles semifinals was Caroline Garcia, a French player with the hottest hand in tennis. But Jabeur met the moment with power and precision; with variety and guile.
She won the first set in 23 minutes as Garcia pressed and Jabeur slammed aces and chipped backhands that skidded low on the blue Arthur Ashe Stadium hardcourt.
She closed out the match, 6-1, 6-3, in just 66 minutes, stopping Garcia’s 13-match winning streak and punctuating the rout with a shout and a tumble before rising quickly to embrace Garcia, a friend, at the net.
Jabeur, who is good company as well as an increasingly great tennis player, has many friends on tour. And there is much to celebrate. After reaching her first Grand Slam singles final in July at Wimbledon, where she lost to Elena Rybakina of Kazakhstan, Jabeur has followed that up with a run to the final in New York, where she will face No. 1 Iga Swiatek, who came back to defeat No. 6 Aryna Sabalenka of Belarus by 3-6, 6-1, 6-4 in Thursday’s second, much more suspenseful semifinal.
Swiatek, a two-time French Open champion from Poland, will be making her first major singles final appearance on a surface other than clay. She trailed 4-2 in the final set against the huge-hitting Sabalenka but the quality of her defense and returns ultimately made the small difference. Though Sabalenka has shored up her faltering serve in New York, she was still unable to put first serves in play when she needed them most in her closing service games.
“Two in a row feels amazing,” Jabeur said in her on-court interview. “After Wimbledon, there was a lot of pressure on me, and I’m really relieved that I can back up my results.”
Jabeur, seeded fifth after being ranked as high as No. 2 earlier this year, is not only a symbol for Tunisia. She is a symbol for a region and a continent as the first Arab and African woman to reach a U.S. Open singles final.
“I take it as a great privilege and as good pressure for me,” she said in a recent interview. “I love that I have that kind of support, and I always try to be positive in my life and see even bad things in a positive way. I don’t just play for myself. I play also for my country.”
But the goal, as Jabeur’s poised and relentless performance made clear Thursday night, is a first major title. She has made her serve a bigger weapon and though Garcia leads the tour in aces this season, Jabeur had the edge on Thursday, finishing with eight aces to Garcia’s two. Though her first-serve percentage was below 50 percent, she won 83 percent of the points when she put her first serve in play while Garcia, who played far below the level she had shown in recent weeks, struggled to win points quickly with her serve. Garcia finished with 23 unforced errors and just 12 winners despite her aggressive tactics. Jabeur had 21 winners and 15 unforced errors.
“She knows now where she’s going, and she knows now what she wants,” said Melanie Maillard, a French performance psychologist who has worked with Jabeur since 2016. “She’s given herself the means. She’s dedicated and so determined.”
It has been a long and challenging process for Jabeur, 28, to believe that someone from a modest background and a nation that had never produced a top-10 tennis player could hit the highest notes in a global sport. She spent long stretches training in France and away from home despite her close connections with her family and her roots.
But Jabeur knew what she had been hearing since her youth about her talent: her innate feel for the ball; her capacity to create angles and change speeds and spins, even on the move.
“I’ve always believed in mental coaching,” Jabeur said. “I had a mental coach since the age of maybe 12 or 13, long before Melanie, but we’ve been working together with Melanie for a long time, and I’m very lucky I found the right person who could push me through and know me much better. It’s all about the connection between both of us. We did a great job, and we’ve come a long way. But I’ve always been someone who believed in the importance of mental health.”
As at Wimbledon, Maillard was in Jabeur’s player box on Thursday night alongside Jabeur’s coach, Issam Jellali, and Jabeur’s husband, Karim Kamoun, who is also her fitness trainer.
“She sacrificed many things since she was little to experience this adventure,” Maillard said in an interview with the French newspaper L’Équipe this week. “She needed to feel that she could make progress in terms of her self-confidence, to believe completely in her project. She sensed clearly that she had something special. She had been told that since she was young, but she could not quite feel it herself. ”
Though Thursday’s duel in Ashe Stadium represented new ground for Jabeur and Garcia — neither had been in a U.S. Open semifinal — it also was a flashback. They were junior rivals who played in the U.S. Open girls event in 2010 in the quarterfinals and also played in three other junior Grand Slam events.
Jabeur won all those matches and has now beaten Garcia three times on the pro tour, all in major tournaments. Garcia said that though Jabeur’s spin and variety clearly posed her problems, she was not thinking back during Thursday’s defeat: more just struggling in the present to find solutions and let her game flow freely.
“It helped and not at the same time,” Jabeur said of her long-running head-to-head edge. “Because I know she was playing amazing tennis, and that puts a lot of pressure on you.”