The two finalists in the women’s singles tournament at Wimbledon have drawn fairly different reactions during the event. For Kazakhstan’s Rybakina, 23, there is admiration and respect for a powerful brand of tennis that looks certain to bring here grand slam titles – if not on Saturday, then in the near future.
But there has been slight reserve in the acclaim, given the awkward fact that Rybakina is Russian-born and Russia-resident, having changed nationalities only four years ago for a wad of support cash from the Kazakhstan federation. And this at a Wimbledon that saw the All England Club ban all Russian and Belarusian players, under government pressure, due to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the terrible ongoing war.
And then there is the 27-year-old Jabeur, also a contender for another title – the most popular player ever to walk into the club. From the moment that Serena Williams hand-picked Jabeur to play doubles with her in her Eastbourne warm-up, to dragging beaten semi-final opponent Tatjana Maria back out onto Centre Court to take more applause, Tunisia’s Jabeur has endeared herself to all.
You can look at the trailblazing for which she is responsible – becoming the first Tunisian, Arab and African woman to reach a grand slam final. In a country and continent still with relatively few players relative to Europe, the Americas and Asia, Jabeur is an inspirational shining light.
But that is just a part of her make-up. Jabeur’s playing style is one of pure joy on court, deploying a range of touch shots and variations in spins and pace that make her almost unique in the modern predominantly power game. And the spectators are invariably left with as big a smile across their faces as the player.
The 34-year-old mother-of-two Maria of Germany is a very close friend, and even before they knew they were scheduled to meet in the semi-finals, there was plenty of video footage of Jabeur playing with her friend’s daughters, and tales of shared barbecues.
She says of her good-humoured nature: “I don’t like routine too much – I like to enjoy myself and like to smile. I want to really enjoy the good moments, on and off the court.”
And then there are the gestures. Although Jabeur no longer lives in Tunisia, she returns there regularly and many of her charitable works are channelled in that direction. At Wimbledon via a Tunisian sponsor it was agreed 100 euros for every ace and trademark drop shot played would be sent to help restore a school in a deprived area of the country.
Last summer in a particularly deadly wave of Covid in Tunisia Jabeur auctioned tennis rackets off, sending the proceeds to hospitals that were most stretched – adding “It is just something I have to do to help my country”.
Since reaching the quarter-finals at the Australian Open two and a half years ago when ranked No78 in the world, it has just been a remorselessly steady climb up to today’s heady heights of No2. And the first WTA title ever won by an Arab woman went to Jabeur in Birmingham in the summer of 2021.
But rivals have long since stopped making the mistake that such a generosity of spirit away from competition extends to on the court. Drive and determination is exceptionally strong in Jabeur, and allied to her natural talent she takes very seriously the job of role model for so many conferred upon her.
Speaking to youngsters in her nation and elsewhere in Africa, she has said: “Nothing is impossible. In my career many have doubted my ability to get to this level at the very top, but my self-belief and hard work allowed me to do it.”
And Jabeur brought the house down in Berlin recently, when after claiming the title she persuaded the court MC to play music by her favourite Tunisian rap artist Balti in the arena while she celebrated.
If she wins on Saturday, we can only wish Jabeur good luck getting the same concession out of Wimbledon as royalty enters the playing surface – but it would certainly be fun seeing her try.
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