No room for friendship as Ons Jabeur sets sights on historic Wimbledon final

Tunisian set to duel with 'barbecue buddy' Tatjana Maria in Thursday's semi-final

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Ons Jabeur and Tatjana Maria will need to set aside their close friendship on Thursday when the pair meet for a place in the Wimbledon final.

“I love Tatjana so much, and her family is really amazing,” Jabeur said after defeating Marie Bouzkova 3-6, 6-1, 6-1 in Tuesday's quarter-finals. “She’s my barbecue buddy, so it’s going to be tough to play her obviously.”

There will be time for barbecues and family get togethers after Wimbledon. For now, Jabeur is taking aim at more history, as she seems to do almost any time she steps foot on a tennis court.

Having become the first Arab woman to reach a Grand Slam quarter-final at the 2020 Australian Open - one of many milestones, including the first Arab to win a WTA Tour title and first to win a Masters tournament - the Tunisian made it a step further at her third attempt, breaking yet new ground for players from the region.

“It means a lot,” said Jabeur, who at world No 2 is the highest-ranked African or Arab player in history. “I was hoping that I could get to this stage for a long time already. I was talking a little bit to (former Moroccan player) Hicham Arazi, and he told me, ‘Arabs always lose in the quarter-finals and we are sick of it. Please break this'. I was, like, I’ll try, my friend.”

As the third seed and form player in the tournament, Jabeur finds herself in unfamiliar territory as the overall favourite to win the title.

It appeared as though the increasing expectations had taken their toll when a flat Jabeur dropped her first set of the championships against Bouzkova and looked in danger of her first loss in 10 matches. Instead, it provided the wake-up call the 27-year-old needed, who proceeded to deliver two wondrous sets that kept alive her bid for a historic major and restored the belief that this could be her year.

Based on ranking, general form, and Grand Slam pedigree, Jabeur will be expected to overcome Maria and book her place in the final. The 34-year-old German has never previously progressed beyond the third round of a major and had lost in the first round of her past eight, but is aiming to continue a remarkable feel-good story of her own.

Maria, currently ranked No 103, has twice taken breaks from tennis to have children and her second child, daughter Cecilia, was only born in April last year. Her run at Wimbledon has included impressive wins over fifth seed Maria Sakkari, former French Open champion Jelena Ostapenko, and compatriot Jule Niemeier in the quarter-finals in one of the most entertaining matches of the tournament - a victory that made her only the sixth woman to reach the Wimbledon semi-finals after turning 34. Belief, therefore, will not be in short supply.

“I always believed that I have something inside,” Maria said. “I always believed in this, but to be now here in this spot? One year ago, I gave birth to my second daughter. If somebody would tell me that one year later you are in a semi-final of Wimbledon, that’s crazy.”

Jabeur has become accustomed to being an inspiration for millions of Arabs and Africans, and she believes Maria deserves similar acclaim for what she has been able to achieve at the All England Club this year.

“She’s one of the examples I wish players would look up to,” Jabeur said. “Because she really suffered to play and win rounds in the Grand Slams and now look at her: a Wimbledon semi-finalist after having two babies. It’s a really amazing story.”

Whoever wins on Thursday, the amazing story will continue into Saturday's final. For the Arab region and African continent, the hope is that it will be Jabeur writing another chapter.

Updated: July 07, 2022, 4:15 AM
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