Ons Jabeur ends Elena Rybakina’s reign to reach the Wimbledon semi-finals

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Ons Jabeur looked up at the pocket of blue in west London sky, placed a palm on the Centre Court turf and took a moment to calculate what she had just achieved – meeting fire with fire to beat the most powerful server in women’s tennis.

In the po-faced, mechanical world that elite sport can be, Jabeur brings something beautifully different. Emotion, humanity – a sense, written across her vivid expressions, of how much it all means. When she played Elena Rybakina in last year’s final, aiming to become the first African or Arab woman to win here, it mean just a little much to her and she cited the sheer ‘mental exhaustion’ as the reason for her defeat. She doesn’t mind admitting she was timid that day.

She did not intend to let history repeat itself. Rybakina, the inscrutable, silent assassin of the quarter final, wound up her almighty serves, approaching 120mph, but Jabeur just punched them straight back, seeing them and attacking them in a way which eventually just drove her opponent down.

That service of Rybakina’s is despatched from a height of six feet and Jabeur had calculated long before walking on court that simply weathering it and surviving it would not do. ‘I said, ‘I’m going for my shots,’ she said at the end. ‘If you play easy with her, it’s not going to work.’

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Easier said than done. But Jabeur did meet fire with fire in a high stakes approach which must go down as one of the games of her life. Sending returns into the favourite’s feet and at times straight past her. When Rybakina’s weaker second serve presented itself – too often from the Kazakh’s perspective in a first set when 62 per cent of the primary missiles landed in – Jabeur went at it even harder.

Ons Jabeur (above) gained revenge with victory over defending champion Elena Rybakina

Ons Jabeur (above) gained revenge with victory over defending champion Elena Rybakina

The sixth seed, who also lost to Iga Swiatek in the US Open final last year, will take on second seed Aryna Sabalenka in the last four after fighting from a set down to defeat Rybakina (right)

The sixth seed, who also lost to Iga Swiatek in the US Open final last year, will take on second seed Aryna Sabalenka in the last four after fighting from a set down to defeat Rybakina (right)

The pair had not faced each other since last year's final, where Jabeur (above) took the first set before Rybakina fought back to win in three

The pair had not faced each other since last year’s final, where Jabeur (above) took the first set before Rybakina fought back to win in three

It wasn’t the raw intent. It never is with Jabeur. They call her the Minister for Happiness back in her native Tunisia for a good reason. There were the occasional sumptuous drop shots, though fewre than we have become accustomed to. There were the sliced squash shots – three of them in succession in one third set exchange – delighting this old place, which has always loved the maverick moments and the off-the-cuff.

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Quite simply, Jabeur played as if her life depended on it, carrying onto a court the knowledge that freezing again would haunt her for all her days. Anxiety barely seemed to enter the equation.

That was necessary, because there were moments when a player approaching this quarter final with less intent, less courage, would have fold. Like them moment when the No 2 seed broke her in the first set.

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She simply broke Rybakina back to love and the first set’s carat gold moment came as she did so – her trademark dropshot, lifted into the dead zone on the front edge of her opponent’s court. When Rybakina reached it, Jabeur was waiting, with a volley guided into court.

With the game 45 minutes old, as drizzle threatened this arena, there was the worst kind of haunting for Jabeur, who broke Rybakina again, served at set point, only to be hauled into a tie-break which she lost. ‘It should have gone my way,’ she reflected of that set. ‘I kept yelling at my coach, ‘You were telling me to play like this!’

It was a huge moment but even then, she wore the air of a woman undaunted. Opportunity knocked again early in the second set, when Jabeur held three break points in the second game – that drop shot had taken her there – only for Rybakina to win the next five.

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Jabeur’s moment came at the end of the set, when her own relentless accuracy began to wear the Kazak down and she began losing her range. A huge Jabeur forehand down the line set the tone for the game. A backhand return on Rybakina’s serve took the match into a third set, just like last year’s final.

The outcome then was not for a minute in doubt. Jabeur hit with a cleanness, consistency and power on both sides which drained Rybakina’s belief away. The second seed fizzed a forehand down the lie, on the chalk, but Jabeur’s running forehand to meet a drive volley on the baseline surpassed that.

A tame Rybakina backhand into the net sealed the match for Jabeur – which encapsulated a match in which she could not cope with what Jabeur threw at her. Now for a semi final with Aryna Sabalenka, another monumental hitter. ‘She’s number one in the race right now but I’ll keep the spirit,’ she said. ‘Hopefully the crowd will be with me.’ She can be sure of that.

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