Ons Jabeur still cannot bring herself to watch last year’s Wimbledon final. Her loss to Elena Rybakina on Centre Court is still too raw, too depressing to offset any tactical value that Jabeur might squeeze out of relieving it all over again.
But, she said with a smile, “I can watch today’s match.”
Indeed, that will make great binge viewing for Jabeur, who was able to exact a measure of revenge from the third-seeded Rybakina, 6-7 (5), 6-4, 6-1, in a quarterfinal on Centre Court Wednesday.
She received no trophy for it, but it set up another Wimbledon rematch — this one against No. 2 Aryna Sabalenka, who beat Jabeur in the quarterfinal stage two years ago in straight sets. But much has changed since then, for both women.
On the other side of the draw, Elina Svitolina, a wild-card entrant, will play the unseeded, but highly talented, Marketa Vondrousova for the other chance at the final.
Svitolina and Jabeur are the clear audience favorites at Wimbledon. Jabeur, who is from Tunisia, is adored for her warm, engaging personality and for her trailblazing efforts as the first woman from Africa and the first from an Arabic-speaking country to reach a Grand Slam tournament final. She also reached the U.S. Open final later last summer.
Svitolina, who beat No. 1 Iga Swiatek in their quarterfinal on Tuesday, has captivated fans around the world for her unflagging efforts to support and play on behalf of her native Ukraine. She also had a baby in October. Even Svitolina’s opponents cannot suppress their admiration for the outspoken Svitolina, who only returned to the tour in April, but has slashed her way through the draw to reach the final four.
“She’s a superwoman,” Vondrousova said.
Jabeur and Sabalenka together represent the power side of the draw, where, by chance, most of the better grass court players were assembled after the drawing. Rybakina, last year’s champion, said she thought the winner of Thursday’s duel between Sabalenka and Jabeur would eventually take home the trophy, and many would agree. Jabeur, in a moment of candid self-confidence, revealed she was one of them.
“I do believe our part is stronger than the other part,” Jabeur said. “But every Grand Slam final is a final, and you can change a lot of things.”
It was hardly an affront to Svitolina and Vondrousova, but sometimes players seize upon the most innocuous slights to fuel an angry motivation. Jo Durie, the British former player and now a coach and broadcaster, said that in 1983, at the peak of Martina Navratilova’s power, she had once dared to declare publicly that she had a chance to beat the great champion.
Durie made the comment when their Australian Open quarterfinal had been suspended by rain at one set apiece.
“Martina was livid,” Durie recalled on Wednesday. “The next day she said to the press, ‘How dare Jo-Jo say that?’ We all have an ego in this sport, and we all have to use it at some point.”
Durie said her words had been slightly distorted in news reports the following day. But sometimes the smallest things can be used to seek an advantage, and by Saturday’s final, Svitolina or Vondrousova may seek to uphold the honor of her side of the draw, should she play Jabeur.
As popular as Svitolina has become, Durie warned that Vondrousova, the least known player still alive in the draw, could not be overlooked.
After Vondrousova became a French Open finalist in 2019, her career was subsequently affected by injuries. But as a well-rounded left-handed player, she can befuddle opponents with her serve and a variety of shots, from soft and dicey to overpowering.
“Wow, is she talented,” Durie said.
Could this then be the stage where Svitolina’s captivating run comes to an end? Or, if she wins, will she end up facing Sabalenka, a powerful Belarusian player whose nationality makes her an enemy of sorts to Svitolina?
Since Russia invaded Ukraine in 2022 with Belarus’s logistical support, Svitolina has helped raise money for relief efforts in Ukraine and has declared that every match she plays is on behalf of her country. She has also said she will not shake hands with any players from Russia or Belarus, even if she likes them personally.
The matter surfaced in the fourth round when Svitolina defeated Victoria Azarenka, who is from Belarus. Azarenka and Svitolina are compatible personally, and Azarenka spoke out against the invasion when it began. Even though there was no handshake after that match, Azarenka gave Svitolina a thumbs-up salute. But fans booed Azarenka off the court — and it stunned her. Some seemingly booed because they misunderstood, blaming Azarenka for the snub. Others perhaps did so because of Azarenka’s nationality.
“I think people also need to know what’s going on and why there is no handshake between Ukrainians, Russian and Belarusian players,” Sabalenka said after she had beaten Madison Keys, 6-2, 6-4, on Wednesday. “I really hope that nobody else will face this reaction from the crowd.”
More pressing, of course, is her meeting with Jabeur in their power semifinal. Sabalenka understands that Jabeur, while known for her slices, her drop shots and her off-speed game, can also unload from the baseline when necessary. Sabalenka called Jabeur’s game “tricky” and noted that her opponent’s goal, to become the first Arab and African woman to win a Grand Slam event, was providing her with enhanced motivation.
But Jabeur has other forces driving her, too, similar to what spurred her on Wednesday against Rybakina. Jabeur did not watch their encounter from last year, but walking onto the court felt eerily similar. So to shake things up, she took the chair on the other side from the one she had sat in last year.
In a similar way, she is now out to erase her quarterfinal loss to Sabalenka here in 2021.
“I’m going to prepare and take my revenge from two years ago,” Jabeur said, again with a smile.