Ons Jabeur becomes first Arab player to reach a grand slam final at Wimbledon

This contest ended in a long, lingering hug. Two first-time grand slam semi-finalists, two women with powerful stories, two friends embracing over the net. Both would have been deserving victors and each wanted to acknowledge the success of the other, but there could be only one winner. And so Ons Jabeur overcame Tatjana Maria 6-2, 3-6, 6-1 to progress to Saturday’s women’s singles final, the first African to do so.

After the hug, there was another celebration, Jabeur pulling Maria up from her seat to take the applause of the Centre Court crowd. Maria, 34, has been celebrated for the way she has returned from the birth of her second child last year to attack the courts of SW19 this past fortnight. Her play here was unrelenting and often a delight, especially in the second set where she found a burst of form to draw level in the match. Jabeur had to gird herself to go again, but go again she did and now sporting history awaits.

“Tatjana deserves a lot of respect,” said Jabeur. “The way she plays, the way she fights. If I didn’t see her two kids, I would say she never had them. It’s really inspiring for a lot of women. I have a lot of respect for her. If she won today, she would have deserved it 100%. After all, it’s just a tennis match. We didn’t go to war or anything. It was amazing, great.”

As for her remaining challenge, Jabeur described it as “one more match, one more step, to continue and hopefully get the title”. The Tunisian said success at Wimbledon has been her priority since her run to the quarter-finals last year and that she has visualised raising the Venus Rosewater Dish. “Last year I told my mental coach, I’m coming back next year for the title. I just love everything around here, the atmosphere and everything.”

Tennis fever is now endemic in her home country, with Jabeur known as “the minister for happiness”. The final also coincides with the celebration of Eid al-Adha, and Jabeur said: “It’s always about Tunisia somehow, but I want to go bigger, inspire many more generations. Tunisia is connected to the Arab world, it’s connected to the African continent. It’s not like Europe or any other countries.

“I want to see more players from my country, from the Middle East, from Africa. I think we didn’t believe enough at certain point that we can do it. Now I’m just trying to show that. Hopefully people are getting inspired.”

Maria was happy for Jabeur, at least as far as is possible in such circumstances, describing her friend as an “amazing role model” who is “such a great person, and really deserves it”. As for her own journey, she said: “I’m 34 years old with two kids and playing my first time semi-final in Wimbledon … I think everything is possible. I think maybe other people will see that everything is possible too, to keep going, to believe in themselves, to fight, to love what they are doing. At the end, to enjoy life.”

The match itself was a compelling contest if not quite thrilling. The greatest satisfaction came from the complementary styles, with Jabeur and Maria employing brave, varied stroke play and a penchant for the slice. This was a particularly effective tool in taking the sting out of either’s serve (115mph first go, 70mph second), and got them into trouble on the odd occasion too.

Jabeur dominated the first set, neutralising Maria’s serve almost entirely. She won 50% of all points when receiving and broke the German twice in the process. Jabeur also recorded 15 winners, with a reliably decisive forehand. Mention should also be made of one particular point – at 15-0 on Maria’s serve at 4-2 down – where Jabeur somehow produced a pirouette drop shot, a magical stroke which was still met by Maria, who passed her cross-court to go 30-0 up.

A similar story to the first set appeared to be unfolding in the second and men were shouting: “Come on!” at Maria in frustration as she looked like surrendering the match meekly. But with one game apiece and at 15-40 down thanks to a double fault, the world No 103 looked inside herself and found intense resolve. She held her serve with a burst of hard running points, then immediately broke Jabeur. As Maria went up a level, so her rival descended and previously reliable stroke play went to pieces.

At one set all, the match looked finely poised, but here was the moment for Jabeur to show her mettle, recover the poise she has shown throughout this tournament, and the 27-year-old duly did so. Again she won the majority of points on Maria’s serve, and the power of her hitting was too much for her friend, whose ingenuity – especially in conjuring up defensive lobs to change the course of a point – ran dry.

Maria never stopped running, though, another reason for Jabeur to forgo her own celebrations in order to acknowledge the woman she describes as her “barbecue buddy”. Such were the lengths Maria made her cover in this match, Jabeur said, that “she has to make me a big barbecue now to make up for it”.

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