Agnieszka Radwanska smiled when she was asked if she has “unfinished business” here at Roland Garros from last year, when she was playing great – on a surface that isn’t her best – before the weather literally rained on her parade.
Radwanska hit out at French Open organisers last year, following her fourth round exit to Tsvetana Pironkova, for forcing them to play while it was raining.
This year, the Polish No9 seed came to Paris coming off of a foot injury that kept her out of both Madrid and Rome, meaning she only played one match on clay ahead of Roland Garros. She also hadn’t won back-to-back matches this season since Sydney in January, prior to this fortnight.
The lack of preparation though has not stopped Radwanska from reaching the third round after battling past Alison Van Uytvanck 6-7(3), 6-2, 6-3 on a sunny and warm Thursday morning. She next faces Frenchwoman Alize Cornet on Saturday.
“You called it very good, unfinished business. Well, hopefully the weather stays like that. But, well, you never know,” Radwanska told reporters on Thursday.
“But, yes, I’m really feeling good in this heat, and of course it was not easy, it was really hot and two-and-a-half hours on court. But, well, yeah, for sure it was better that way than for sure it was last year.”
Radwanska’s foot injury caused her pain even when she was walking, the 28-year-old had told reporters in Madrid earlier this month. She says there are still lingering effects but that she does not feel pain on court.
“I feel 100 per cent on court. That’s the most important thing. So of course I still need to take care of the foot a lot. I’m always saying, spending more time on the table than court, but that’s the part of the day and the preparation,” she explained.
With clay being Radwanska’s least favourite surface, and it is one that requires lots of running, and specific movement, did she consider skipping the French Open – which would have snapped her streak of playing 43 consecutive Grand Slam main draws – and focusing on the grass season ahead?
“To be honest, if you’re talking about the Grand Slam, if I make that kind of decision, it would have to be so bad and I wouldn’t even walk normally. And of course I would wait till the last minute to make that decision,” said Radwanska.
“Of course clay, it’s never been my favourite surface. I’m not expecting miracles here, but I will try my best. I’m playing really what I can do this year on the clay, this is also Grand Slam. So it’s as important as Wimbledon or Australian Open. That’s why I really want to play here, and do my best.”
Radwanska’s dress is certainly something.. pic.twitter.com/hVh4vU91cs— Jimmie48 Photography (@JJlovesTennis) June 1, 2017
Roger Federer, who won the Australian Open last January in his first official event back from a six-month injury absence, decided to forgo the clay season to strengthen his chances at Wimbledon next month.
Asked if she would ever “pull a Federer” and do that, Radwanska said: “Well, I wish. It’s not that easy, especially comparing me to Federer, let’s come back to reality.
“I have a different position. But, well, I think it’s hard decision, also for him just to skip one Grand Slam to do good at the other one.
“I don’t think I can do that, especially skipping Grand Slam, but I could skip Rome and Madrid. I had to. But anyway, for me, it’s only four tournaments on clay. It’s still not much, but sometimes even too much for me.
“I’m really trying to play all of those every year, but there is always something happening exactly at that time. That’s why I’m skipping it.”
Against Van Uytvanck, Radwanska hit 18 winners against 16 unforced errors and was 23/29 at the net. Her Belgian opponent, a former quarter-finalist at Roland Garros, fired 46 winners but was dogged by 45 unforced errors.
As journalists we are expected to be emotionless. We’re not allowed to cheer in the press seats, we’re not meant to have favourites, and all that must be reflected in our unbiased writing.
It’s a system that is achievable but can be tested from time to time. Not the unbiased part – I try to be as neutral as possible always – but the rest of it.
At the end of the day we are humans, and it’s only natural to be drawn to certain characters that we cover 11 months a year.
You can be drawn to them because of a story they once told you that struck a chord, or part of their journey you relate to the most, or because you like the way they hit a tennis ball, or any other reason. And of course you sometimes find yourself rooting for a player just because they’re from the same country as you are.
I rarely am in that situation since most Egyptian tennis players aren’t ranked high enough to feature in tournaments I attend – there are a few exceptions – but I do follow all Arab players closely and have become invested in the careers of some of them.
Today was a day I could not be a robot. I sat at my desk in front of my monitor watching Ons Jabeur, a young Tunisian whom I’ve followed since she was 15, put together a dominant display of tennis to upset the sixth-seeded Dominika Cibulkova. I sighed, I screamed, I covered my face, I forgot for a short while that I was a journalist.
I got looks from some people around me but I did not care.
You see, beyond the fact that Jabeur is one of the most likeable people on tour and is someone I am close to, I am in a position to really understand the magnitude of her achievements and the impact it can have on the young girls and boys of the Arab world. Not just the youngsters. Jabeur making noise with her results on the global stage might perhaps knock some sense into the sports authorities of our countries that only focus on football and ignore individual sports.
It can show parents that sport can be a profession and that the typical path of high school followed by university is not the only way to go.
It can show the world that Arabs and Muslims are not just the ones portrayed in the news, they are successful professional athletes, ambassadors, and fighters.
Other countries may have elite athletes in spades – the Arab world does not. And the ones we do have are not given enough attention.
So when I choose to make a big deal of Jabeur becoming the first Arab woman to reach the third round of a Grand Slam, I may be deserting my role as a robot, but I am also fulfilling my duty as someone who can educate the world of the significance of her achievement.
Today I was not a robot. And I’m proud of that.
1 – Ons Jabeur is the first Arab woman to reach the third round of a Grand Slam in singles thanks to her win over Dominika Cibulkova.
10 – years since Jo-Wilfried Tsonga had last lost in a Grand Slam first round. On Tuesday, he crashed out to French Open debutant Renzo Olivo in a match that was suspended for darkness from the previous night. This is just the third time Tsonga has lost in a Grand Slam opening round.
52 – winners and 56 unforced errors from Oceane Dodin in her three-set defeat to Svetlana Kuznetsova.
85 – Rafael Nadal won a remarkable 85 per cent (17/20) of the points on his second serve in his straight-sets demolition of Robin Haase. He dropped just THREE points on his second serve.
“I knew it was going to be hard. It was going to be crowdy.”
— Renzo Olivo created the perfect English word: Crowd + rowdy = Crowdy
“Last week I won my first-ever clay tournament. And today I lost at the French Open. It’s the paradox of tennis.”
— Jo-Wilfried Tsonga after his first round exit
“Quite honestly, I really don’t give a damn what she says.”
— Garbine Muguruza when asked to comment on Margaret Court’s homophobic statements.
Ons Jabeur bt. Dominika Cibulkova  6-4, 6-3
Playing in her maiden Roland Garros main draw, and against a top-10 player for just the second time in her career, Jabeur got her first top-10 victory with a dominating display against the sixth-seeded Cibulkova. Besides the deft drop shots and the 30 winners Jabeur unleashed on her far more experienced opponent, the Tunisian dropped just two points on her first serve throughout the match.
Bethanie Mattek-Sands’ cherries outfit, yay or nay? Personally it reminds me of Pacha nights in Ibiza I’d like to forget, but maybe that’s just me!
Not many would understand it, but when an Arab athlete accomplishes something significant in sport, it is considered a source of pride for the entire Arab region.
It doesn’t matter if you’re from Tunisia or Egypt or Saudi Arabia or the UAE… The whole region is connected by more than just a language and when it comes to sport, the accomplishments at the elite level are not too frequent, especially in tennis, so when one Arab does something big, it could potentially impact more than 300 million Arabs.
Which is why Tunisian Ons Jabeur has been considered a hero in the Arab world ever since she won the Roland Garros junior title in 2011. She was 16 years old at the time and shot to fame across the region for her unprecedented success by an Arab female tennis player.
Being a role model or a national hero is an honour, but also sometimes a burden for many players, who feel added pressure because of the hopes of their nations that are pinned on their shoulders. Imagine being that figure for more than 20 countries, not just one.
It is a tough ask but one that Jabeur carries proudly. The 22-year-old on Wednesday became the first Arab woman to reach the third round of a Grand Slam in singles. She defeated the sixth-seeded Dominika Cibulkova 6-4, 6-3 to claim the first top-10 win of her career, and set up a third round with No30 seed Timea Bacsinszky.
After her victory, Jabeur draped the Tunisian flag around her shoulders and celebrated with the many Tunisians who were in the stands of Court Suzanne Lenglen.
Jabeur is the first Arab woman since Selima Sfar in 2008 to win a Grand Slam main draw match and she paid tribute to her predecessor during her on-court interview with Marion Bartoli.
Jabeur and Sfar, 39, are friends, and sometimes practice together when they are both in Doha, where Jabeur’s husband lives and where Sfar spends time working as a commentator for beIN Sports.
“I’ve known Selima for a long time, and actually from last year, we got really close,” Jabeur said after her win on Wednesday.
“We started to practice more and more together, and she always gives me a lot of advice. She’s a top player from before, so she can help me a lot. She knows a lot about tennis. She’s a very kind person, so she always gives me a lot of advice.
“Now to be here and represent like Tunisia and the Arab world just after her, it’s an honour. We were talking with her last time and she’s very happy I’m the player taking kind of this adventure now.
“I would like to give hope to all of these youngsters who’d like to turn pro, and more specifically the Tunisians who are dreaming of Roland Garros. It’s not impossible. Work hard, and then the results will come.”
Does the weight of being the sole Arab woman competing at this level in the sport ever get too much for Jabeur?
The humorous Tunisian said: “Well, when I win, I’m like ‘Yeah, I represent the Arab world’. When I lose, I try to be just Ons Jabeur,” she added with a laugh.
“No, we are small country. The Arab world is like when you do something good, you’re from Tunisia, and from Morocco, other Arab country, they get interested in you.
“For me, it’s not only about Tunisia anymore, and it’s all about the Arab country, African continent. It’s amazing, because I feel like my country is getting bigger and bigger.”
Jabeur is now on the brink of becoming the first Arab woman since Sfar in 2002, to crack the top 100 (her provisional ranking is now 101).
Her journey from being a success junior to now getting closer to the very best in her sport has been long, despite her young age, and tumultuous. But this season, Jabeur has consistently put some strong results together, reaching the last-16 at the WTA Premier event in Charleston, making the quarter-finals in Taipei and now featuring in the Roland Garros third round.
She credits her work with her new coach, Mislav Hizak, and the Empire Tennis Academy in Trnava, Slovakia, for her recent success. Jabeur spent her preseason training in Slovakia with the likes of Daria Kasatkina and Kateryna Kozlova, and put in a monster effort to get fitter and ready for 2017.
“I had a nice proposal, a good academy, a good coach. From that point onward, I was ready to give 100 per cent of myself. I didn’t have to wonder where to practice, when to practice,” she explains.
“So that means 50 per cent of my worries went away. I felt lighter, I started practicing better, playing better. If you feel good in your head, then your results improve.”
Against Cibulkova, she did not flinch. She hit 30 winners against just 17 unforced errors and only dropped two points on her first serve.
She toyed with the Slovakian star with her signature drop shots and the only time she lost serve – in the second set to go down 1-3 – she broke back immediately and never looked back.
“It’s an unbelievable feeling, especially when you dictate the game. I mean, I felt like today I was deciding what to do. If I wanted to get her in the net, I make the drop shot. And then I somehow even make a lob or win the point,” she said.
“And then the serve was really good today, and to win in two sets against top-10 player, it’s great to have more confidence and to continue in this way.”
Jabeur is renowned for her deft drop shots and they were heavily featured against Cibulkova. She says that sometimes she just can’t help it, and that the drop shot comes off her racquet without her even intending to do it.
Her unique style of play caught the eye of two-time Grand Slam champion Svetlana Kuznetsova, who said on Wednesday: “ I saw her play quite a bit, she plays a very different game, she mixes up the style, she feels the ball really well, she’s not a great mover and she hasn’t been doing so well but when she’s on it’s really tough. She plays a very interesting game, different than other girls.”
Cibulkova knew what to expect from Jabeur having watched videos of her on YouTube to prepare for the match, but the world No7 says she was unable to bring her best game on the day.
“Literally nothing worked for me today. It was a really bad performance from my side, I don’t know what happened today, because I felt really well before the tournament and also in the first round,” said Cibulkova.
“I was pretty soft and I let her play really aggressive and then when I wanted to do something I was doing so many errors, it was just nothing working, from the serve, return, and all my weapons were just not there today.”
Jabeur made it into the draw as a lucky loser and has been on a mission to make sure she capitalised on the opportunity (she also was a lucky loser in Charleston where she made the last-16).
“I did everything to continue my path. I played really good from the beginning of the year, and I don’t see why I should not continue doing my best. I have been working very hard, and it’s time to make the work on the court and prove that I can be one of the best,” says Jabeur.