When Ons Jabeur started her 2018 season with a 0-5 record, she probably wasn’t expecting she’d end her year by winning seven matches in seven days to reach her first WTA final – at a Premier-level event no less.
The Tunisian history-maker became the first Arab woman to make a WTA semi-final or final thanks to a magic run at the Kremlin Cup in Moscow last month, where she made her way through qualifying and took out three top-eight seeds before falling to Daria Kasatkina in the title decider.
It wasn’t just that she was winning but it was the manner in which she was doing so. Jabeur showcased her flamboyant brand of tennis at Moscow’s Olympic stadium and the world finally got to witness what her golden hands can do.
From jumping backhands, to conniving slices to the no-look, behind-the-back half volley that earned her the WTA Shot of the Month award, the Jabeur Show was on full display and everyone was eating it up.
Even more impressive is the fact that she had that run without her coach Bertrand Perret in her corner due to his three-month suspension for an issue that occurred when he was coaching Peng Shuai last year.
— WTA (@WTA) November 9, 2018
Her season may have ended with a loss to Kasatkina – after leading the Russian 6-2, 4-1 – but Jabeur can take great confidence from her last few months on tour, which saw her reach her current career-high ranking of 61. It is the highest ranking ever achieved by an Arab woman in singles, as she eclipsed her compatriot Selima Sfar, who peaked at 75 in the world in 2001.
“I’m really proud of the fact that physically I was ready, I played eight matches [in Moscow], I’m not known as the most athlete that’s really ready for a long run but I proved to everyone that I can be physically ready, that I can beat top-10 players, and I’m really proud of that. I’m really proud of the level I showed,” Jabeur told Sport360.
“Of course I’m proud that I didn’t have a tennis coach there but I played my game and I improved myself, I was auto-correcting myself, which is something I’ve been looking to improve from a long time ago.”
After commencing the year with a 1-9 win-loss mark through the first three months, Jabeur slowly started to find her form, but it wasn’t until the grass season that things really started to look up for the 24-year-old. She won the $100k ITF title in Manchester, which earned her a wildcard into the Wimbledon main draw.
At Wimbledon, she became the first Arab woman to win a singles match at the All England Club since Sfar in 2005.
“Beginning of this season wasn’t successful for me of course,” admits Jabeur. “But I’ve been hurt a lot and I told myself to be patient and to learn from these bad losses, especially sometimes it was really, really tight. But I think the way that I believed in myself, the way I kept myself patient, and I was able to continue to do the hard work and to be in a good position, especially at the end of the season, and starting from the grass, and a little bit of clay – the fact that I was able to continue working hard without seeing the results paying off, I was able to continue, this is really good.
“I got to say the team with me, they were also patient. I think now the hard work is paying off. I’m happy that I didn’t give up and put myself in another position, like not wanting to practice because I wasn’t getting good results. So I’m happy with that.”
A few weeks after Wimbledon, she reached the quarter-finals of the WTA event in Bucharest, then qualified for the US Open later in the summer. Last month at the Premier Mandatory event in Beijing, Jabeur qualified for the main draw then defeat world No. 1 Simona Halep via retirement in the first round before losing a tight affair to Donna Vekic. It was all just a prelude to a stunning week in Moscow.
“I’m really proud, I’ve been waiting for this moment a long time ago, and it’s time to show the world who I am, to show the game I’m trying to play on the court, the fun stuff, to do the fun stuff,” said Jabeur, who has won over a lot of fans globally after her Russian adventure.
“I think a lot of people reacted. A lot of people are happy with the way I played, they’re surprised, they didn’t know me, they didn’t know the level that I have. It’s amazing to feel this way, to hear people what they’re saying about me, especially commentators on TV.
“I was happy to find out that Tunisians also were watching me in the cafes, usually they watch football, they don’t watch tennis. So seeing all of these people watching the final, and people in hospitals asking about the TV to watch my final, I was happy to hear that and hopefully this can give me the opportunity to go really far.”
It wasn’t just Tunisians in cafes who were following Jabeur’s progress in Russia, President Beji Caid Essebsi was also keeping tabs and he congratulated her after the final.
“Yes, I got a call from the President of Tunisia, I was really surprised. But it made me feel happy, it made me feel that he cares and he wants me to be one of the greatest players in the world. That’s something amazing and of course to hear from the President of our country is something I’m really proud of,” she says.
Kasatkina, now ranked 10 in the world, believes it was important to showcase the entertaining kind of play, which she describes as “not the usual women’s tennis”, from both her and Jabeur in the Moscow final. The 21-year-old Russian has spent several offseasons training with Jabeur in Slovakia, and is not surprised by the level she displayed at the Kremlin Cup.
“Of course I know she can do this,” says Kasatkina. “We were practicing a lot and she’s very talented, I know the things she can do. I don’t know why she has so many ups and downs but I’m pretty sure that in one moment she will make a big improvement.”
Joined by Perret, and her husband and fitness coach Karim Kamoun, Jabeur has already started her 2019 preseason preparations as she looks to start next year far better than how she began this one. Her higher ranking means she can get into most tournaments directly and she has a few months early in the year where she can pick up some serious points.
“My goal is to enter the top-30, I’m not that far. But that’s just a number, for me it’s to keep improving my game, to keep improving my level,” she asserts.
“Because my level can speak for me, if I’m really good than I won’t drop in the rankings. I gained so much experience from this year so hopefully next year will be much better, especially in the beginning.”
Asked what the biggest lesson learned was from her roller coaster 2018, Jabeur said: “The biggest lesson is to be patient and to enjoy playing. For me, the hard work will pay off anytime. Hard work and keep believing. I didn’t stop believing in myself which is something that has helped me now, because if I didn’t do that probably I wouldn’t have arrived to this level now.”
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