Jabeur’s Breakthrough Season Just Keeps Getting Better

Ons Jabeur (photo: WTA video)

INDIAN WELLS/WASHINGTON, October 15, 2021 (by Michael Dickens)

In a year filled with milestones for Tunisia’s Ons Jabeur, on Thursday night at the BNP Paribas Open in Indian Wells, Calif., she added a few more to her breakthrough season.

The 12th seeded Tunisian beat a very good opponent in 18th seed Anett Kontaveit of Estonia, 7-5, 6-3, to reach her first WTA 1000 semifinal. However, what drew considerable attention at the conclusion of Jabeur’s one-hour and 26-minute victory – and what put a huge smile on her face and joy in her heart – was this: Her triumph meant that come Monday she would make her debut in the WTA Top 10 for the first time, becoming the first Arab player – woman or man – to achieve this remarkable feat.

“Honestly a great match, great fight,” Jabeur said during her post-match press conference. “Always tough to play against Anett. I tried to play my game little bit, but she knows me so well. It was kind of tough to kind of executive those drop shots.

“I’m pretty glad that I stayed calm when I needed to be. It was very stressful at the end. But I’m glad that I got the win and looking forward to play.”

And, then, as if to say her business in the southern California palm desert wasn’t finished, she added: “Why not get the title here?”

Exactly, why not?

Jabeur’s remarkable accomplishments have already included attaining her first WTA tour-level singles title, won on grass in Birmingham, in which she also became the first Arab woman to win a WTA singles title. Earlier this season, she was a finalist on green clay at Charleston, S.C, and more recently, reached the final of a WTA 500 on an outdoor hard court in Chicago.

Her Thursday victory over the 20th-ranked Kontaveit was her WTA-leading 48th of the year and it improved her win-loss record to 48-17. Since the beginning of the North American hard-court season, Jabeur is 15-4, including eight wins in her last nine matches.

During the Indian Wells fortnight, Jabeur has dropped just one set, in her first match against Anastasija Sevastova. Since then, she’s won three consecutive straight-set matches with wins over No. 22 seed Danielle Collins, qualifier Anna Kalinskaya and Kontaveit.

Kontaveit came into the quarterfinal meeting having won 16 of her previous 17 matches while garnering two titles, at Cleveland and Ostrava. However, she met her match against Jabeur, who closed out the victory by winning the last four games. The in-form Kontaveit remarked afterward: “It definitely wasn’t my day … her variations wrong-footed me a lot of times and I lost my rhythm.”

Characteristic of Jabeur’s victories, they have been filled with plenty of drop shots and slice that have left each of her 48 victims shaking their heads. Misery has its company and Jabeur’s ability to effectively disguise her shot-making ability extremely well has created plenty of misery for her opponents – much to her own satisfaction and also to the joy of her fans.

On Friday night, Jabeur will play 21st seed Paula Badosa of Spain, who is 7-3 against Top 20 players over the past year and into her fifth semifinal this season.

“It’s really fun to play against her,” Badosa said in press after beating No. 10 seed Angelique Kerber, 6-4, 7-5, Thursday night. “We’re really good friends. So, I’m playing another friend. It’s going to be a tough one.

“I always said she’s one of the most talented players in the world. She’s doing an amazing year. It’s nice seeing all these players that we were like a few years ago outside the Top 100 not being Top 10, Top 20, fighting for the finals. It’s amazing. I’m super happy and I’m happy that I can play her.”

While a lot of attention is being given to Jabeur’s rise to the Top 10, she knows it’s just a stepping stone to bigger things – and she’s mature enough to keep focused.

“Top 10 I now is the beginning,” Jabeur said Thursday night during press. “I know I deserve this place from a long time since I was playing well. But I want to prove that I deserve to be here, I deserve to be one of the Top 10 players.

“There is a lot of things that I need to improve. I’m very happy, a lot of emotions right now, but I’m still in competition. So, I’m trying to calm down and not overthink about Top 10. Probably will celebrate after the tournament.”

Instead of returning to Europe after the US Open, Jabeur stayed in the United States to train and, just as importantly, to relax off the court. She warmed up for Indian Wells by playing in the Chicago Fall Tennis Classic, a WTA 500 event, and reached the title match with victories over Hsieh Su-Wei, Jessica Pegula, Elina Svitolina and Elena Rybakina before losing in three sets to Top 10 foe Garbiñe Muguruza. The Chicago experience put her in a good frame of mind for Indian Wells.

The 27-year-old Jabeur’s team includes her coach, Issam Jellali, and her husband, Karin Kamoun, who also doubles as her fitness trainer. They are her constants, and round by round, her legion of fans at the Indian Wells Tennis Garden continues to grow, many of them waving Tunisian flags. During her post-match court side interviews, she makes a point to acknowledge them and show her appreciation.

“I’m not going to change a winning team,” Jabeur said in press. “We are winning. We are doing well. We are making mistakes, maybe. We are learning. I am finally finding my joy, kind of the goals I’ve been waiting for for along time.”

All of a sudden, Jabeur finds herself in ninth place in the Porsche Race To The WTA Finals, currently with 2,685 points. The top eight players qualify for the season-ending competition. With the uncertainty of Ashleigh Barty and Naomi Osaka participating, who currently are first and eighth in the standings, Jabeur stands a very good chance of being in Guadalajara as one of the elite eight.

For now, looking back on her historic night in Indian Wells, Jabeur summed her feelings in a simple but eloquent manner. “I just believed in myself, I worked hard, and this is just the beginning of great things,” she said.