WIMBLEDON, England (AP) — There was a time — a year ago; six months ago, even — that Ons Jabeur might not have recovered from the deficit she found herself in during the Wimbledon semifinals. Down a set. Down a break in the second set. So close to being just a game from defeat.
She credits a sports psychologist with helping her understand how to deal with those on-court situations, with managing to keep her focus, keep her strokes on-target. Thanks in part to that, and a steadiness down the stretch at Centre Court on Thursday, Jabeur is on her way to a second consecutive final at the All England Club and her third title match in the past five Grand Slam tournaments.
Now she wants to win a trophy. The sixth-seeded Jabeur earned the right to play for one again by beating big-hitting Aryna Sabalenka 6-7 (5), 6-4, 6-3.
“I’m very proud of myself, because maybe old me would have lost the match today and went back home already. But I’m glad that I kept digging very deep and finding the strength,” said Jabeur, a 28-year-old from Tunisia who already was the only Arab woman and only North African woman to reach a major final.
“I’m learning to transform the bad energy into a good one,” Jabeur said, explaining that she was able to get over the anger she felt after the first set. “Some things I have no control over: She can ace any time. She can hit the big serve, even if I have a break point. That’s frustrating a bit. But I’m glad that I’m accepting it and I’m digging deep to just go and win this match — and, hopefully, this tournament.”
To do that, Jabeur will need to get past Marketa Vondrousova, a left-hander from the Czech Republic, on Saturday. Vondrousova became the first unseeded women’s finalist at Wimbledon since Billie Jean King in 1963 by eliminating Elina Svitolina 6-3, 6-3.
Like Jabeur, Vondrousova has been to a major final before. Like Jabeur, she’s never won one, having been the runner-up at the 2019 French Open as a teen.
“We’re both hungry,” Jabeur said.
So far, Jabeur is 0-2 in Slam finals. She lost to Elena Rybakina at the All England Club last July and to Iga Swiatek at the U.S. Open last September.
Jabeur’s win over No. 2 Sabalenka, the Australian Open champion in January, followed victories against three other major title winners: No. 3 Rybakina, No. 9 Petra Kvitova and Bianca Andreescu.
“I want to make my path worth it,” Jabeur said.
Thursday’s triumph, which came by collecting 10 of the last 13 games, prevented Sabalenka from replacing Swiatek at No. 1 in the rankings.
“I had so many opportunities,” said Sabalenka, a 25-year-old from Belarus who was not allowed to compete at Wimbledon last year because all players from her country and from Russia were banned over the war in Ukraine. “Overall, I didn’t play my best tennis today. It was just, like, a combo of everything. A little bit of nerves, a little bit of luck for her at some points.”
Jabeur trailed 4-2 in the second set when she began to turn things around. But not before Sabalenka came within a point from leading 5-3 after Jabeur put a forehand into the net and fell onto her back on the grass of Centre Court.
She dusted herself off and broke to take that game and begin the comeback. When she delivered a backhand return winner to force the match to a third set, Jabeur held her right index finger to her ear, then raised it and wagged it as she strutted to the changeover.
Sabalenka’s shots missed the mark repeatedly. She finished with far more unforced errors than Jabeur: The margins were 14-5 in the last set and 45-15 for the match.
“I was little bit emotionally down, then she was up,” said Sabalenka, who hit 10 aces but also double-faulted five times.
A break put Jabeur up 4-2 in the third, but there was still some work to be done. Sabalenka, as powerful a ball-striker as there is on tour, erased four match points before Jabeur converted her fifth with a 103 mph ace.
In the first semifinal, the 43rd-ranked Vondrousova reeled off seven consecutive games in one stretch against the 76th-ranked Svitolina, who returned from maternity leave just three months ago. After surprisingly beating Swiatek in the quarterfinals, she was trying to become the first woman from Ukraine to make it to the title match at a major tennis tournament.
Svitolina received loud support from thousands in the crowd at the main stadium — Ukraine’s ambassador to Britain was in the Royal Box — as applause and yells echoed off the closed roof.
Svitolina says she plays more calmly nowadays, something she attributed to the dual motivations of playing for her baby daughter, who was born in October, and of playing for her home country, where the ongoing war began in February 2022, when Russia invaded with help from Belarus.
“It’s a lot of responsibility, a lot of tension. I try to balance it as much as I can. Sometimes it gets maybe too much,” Svitolina said. “But I don’t want to (make it) an excuse.”
Vondrousova missed about six months last season because of two operations on her left wrist. She visited England last year with a cast on that arm to enjoy London as a tourist and to watch her best friend and doubles partner, Miriam Kolodziejova, try to qualify for Wimbledon.
“It’s not always easy to come back. You don’t know if you can play at this level and if you can be back at the top and back at these tournaments,” Vondrousova said. “I just feel like I’m just grateful to be on a court again, to play without pain.”