When Ons Jabeur enters a tennis court, she never plays just for herself, but for the future generations she hopes to inspire.
This Saturday will be no different as Jabeur aims to become the first Tunisian, first Arab and first African woman to win a grand slam in the Open Era.
“Tunisia is connected to the Arab world, is connected to the African continent,” she told reporters after earning her spot in the Wimbledon final, where she will play Kazakhstan’s Elena Rybakina, herself a history writer.
“In the region, we want to see more players. It’s not like Europe or other countries. I want to see more players from my country, from the Middle East, from Africa.”
Jabeur, 27, pioneered her region long before she reached Saturday’s final. Last year she became the first Arab player to win a WTA title and break into the top 10 in singles.
However, Saturday’s win would be the greatest achievement of her career.
“I have often imagined giving the speech, holding the (Wimbledon) trophy and seeing the trophy,” said Jabeur.
“I’ve done it all. Now I really have to hold the trophy. That’s all I have left. But I believe in that. I know I can do it.”
Jabeur has experienced a strong rise in the world rankings in recent years, reaching the top 50 for the first time in 2020.
She won her first of three WTA events last year and claimed her next two – in Madrid and Berlin – earlier this season, taking her to a record high of second place in the world.
Her success on the pitch – coupled with her friendly, easygoing demeanor off – has made her a hugely popular figure back home in Tunisia, where she has earned the nickname ‘Minister of Happiness’.
“The times are sometimes difficult in Tunisia,” says Jabeur. “When they see my matches, they always say that sport unites people. I’m glad they’re following me. They push me to do better. Hopefully I can keep the title forever.”
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Jabeur has dropped just two sets so far at Wimbledon this year – against Marie Bouzkova in the quarter-finals and Tatjana Maria in the semi-finals.
However, tall, well-serving Rybakina has only lost one set and is arguably Jabeur’s strongest opponent to date, having dismantled 2019 Wimbledon champion Simona Halep in her semi-final on Thursday.
Whoever wins, history will be made as when the two meet at Center Court, a Wimbledon winner will be crowned for the first time and Tunisia or Kazakhstan will celebrate their first singles grand slam champion.
Moscow-born and raised Rybakina changed from Russia to Kazakhstan four years ago – a move that seems particularly relevant this year, given Wimbledon organizers’ decision to exclude Russian and Belarusian players amid the ongoing war in Ukraine.
“I have been playing for Kazakhstan for a long time,” Rybakina told reporters on Thursday when asked about her nationality.
“I am very happy to represent Kazakhstan. They believed in me. There is no more question about how I feel. It’s just been a long time, my journey as a Kazakh player: I played in the Olympics, Fed Cup.”
Like Jabeur, Rybakina is experiencing the best grand slam tournament of her career, never making it past the quarterfinals.
The two players have faced each other three times before and Jabeur won twice, including their most recent meeting in Chicago last year.
Saturday’s final shows contrasting styles: Jabeur brings an entertaining series of shots to her game, using slice and drop shots to good effect, while Rybakina brings power – both from the baseline and with her serve.
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The 23-year-old has hit 49 aces so far this tournament – 19 more than any other player – and has recorded the second fastest serve in the women’s draw at 122 miles per hour.
Jabeur is well aware of the challenges her opponent will pose.
“She serves really well, so my main goal is to give as many balls back as I can, to make her work really hard to win the point,” said Jabeur.
“I played her a few times. I know she can hit really hard and hit a lot of winners. I know my playing could really bother her. I really try to focus more on myself, do a lot of slices, make her work really hard.”
But for the so-called ‘Minister of Happiness’, Saturday’s match will also be about enjoying the opportunity – a moment Jabeur previously thought she would never experience in her career.
“In general, I try to enjoy tennis because sometimes it’s hard to do it if you play every week, when you might lose every week. It is really difficult.
“But for me I had to remind myself why I started playing tennis, what kind of joy tennis brings me. Once I remind myself I get pumped, motivated to go and play my next matches. †