Ons Jabeur’s bid to become the first Arab player to win a Grand Slam title ended in heartbreak yesterday as Kazakhstan’s Elena Rybakina stormed back from a one-set deficit to win the Wimbledon Ladies title, 3-6, 6-2, 6-2.
Tunisian Jabeur, 27, who had already created history by becoming the first Arab and African woman to play in a Grand Slam final, showed no signs of nerves in the first set, unsettling her big-serving opponent with her creative game, engaging the tall Kazakh in long rallies and making her scamper all over the court with sliced returns and numerous drop shots.
Soon, she broke Rybakina’s serve to surge 2-1 ahead and didn’t allow the advantage to slip, holding on to her serve as her 23-year-old opponent appeared to become increasingly nervous, with Jabeur eventually winning the set, 6-3.
But the momentum seemed to shift in Rybakina’s favour as Jabeur started the second set badly, gifting a service game to the Kazakh because of unforced errors. Rybakina pounced on the opportunity as she then held serve and began to counter the Tunisian’s crafty drop shots and second serves.
World number two, Jabeur, who is said to be a player that likes to control the game, saw her grip on the match beginning to loosen and made more errors as the second set wore on with Rybakina gaining more confidence with each point and winning it comfortably, 6-2, in the end.
Rybakina was now in her element and raced 2-0 ahead in the third set after she broke the Tunisian’s serve. But Jabeur was not going to give up without a fight and a pivotal moment soon arrived when, at 2-3 down, she appeared to be about to break her opponent’s serve at 40-0.
The Kazakh, then, turned on the heat, sending down first serves clocked at over 115mph, as she saved three break points and won the game. Soon, she was serving for the title at 5-2 and 40-0 up and, although Jabeur tried to claw desperately back from the brink to make it 30-40, Rybakina was not going to make any more errors and smiled, shyly, in the direction of her family and coach when she clinched the final point and the title.
That moment of celebration for Rybakina, who was born in Russia before switching to Kazakhstani citizenship in 2019, was one of heartbreak across the Arab world where millions had been rooting for the widely-popular Jabeur to create history.
In Bahrain, where a Tunisian family had all gathered together to watch the historic final, Jabeur’s defeat cast a pall over their previously festive mood.
“We’re all, obviously, very disappointed,” Kacem Ben Jemia, the technical director at the Bahrain Maritime Sports Association (BMSA), told the GDN. “But, that’s life! My thirteen-year-old son, Jassem, is very depressed because he believed Ons could win!”
Jemia, who is close friends with Jabeur since they were introduced in 2010, had been watching the match with his wife, Sondes, and daughter, Kenza, and said he would send a comforting text message to Jabeur.
Meanwhile, a former technical director of the Tunisian tennis federation, who had the opportunity to personally coach the Tunisian star nine years ago, told the GDN that Jabeur had not been able to play her natural game from the second set onwards.
“Ons is the kind of player who likes to control the game,” Portuguese tennis official Luis de Sousa, who was with the Tunisian tennis federation for a year in 2013 but has known Jabeur since she was a young regional champion, said in a phone call from his home in Lisbon. “Elena played a smart game – both she and Ons play similarly from the baseline and with their approach to the net – and Ons seemed to become increasingly nervous.”
The Tunisian had some chances to get back in the game in the third set but made too many unforced errors, de Sousa added.
“It’s a pity because it was a good opportunity for her to win the title,” he explained. “She took the first set more or less easily but wasn’t able to make a comeback in the next two. Still, she was in the Wimbledon final and she’s inspired millions not just in the Arab and African regions but around the world. We’re all very proud of her.”
Jemia, who has lived in Bahrain since 2001 when he took up his BMSA role, echoed de Sousa’s sentiments.
“That’s sport for you,” he said. “There can be only one winner. But she made us all so very proud and, hopefully, she could come back next year and win the title!”