Ons Jabeur knocks out champion Elena Rybakina to avenge 2022 final defeat | Wimbledon 2023

new balance

Ons Jabeur is known back home in Tunisia as the Minister of Happiness. She’s a pirouetting, skipping, sliding cartoon on the court. She plays like a video game character if someone dropped the controller and all the trick shot combinations were mashed at once.

Elena Rybakina is shy. She’s nice, she’s polite. She unexpectedly has the serve of someone dropping a bowling ball from the roof of a building. In last year’s final, when she bested a devastated Jabeur in three sets (3-6, 6-2, 6-2) to win her maiden grand slam, she celebrated akin to someone who had just claimed £10 from a scratch card. In a way it was refreshing, now that players will lie star-fish on their back at winning low-tier Challenger events.

After her previous round win, Jabeur said jokingly-seriously that she was looking forward to taking “revenge” on Rybakina. She tried hard to do so. And she did, winning in three riveting sets, 6-7 (5), 6-4, 6-1.

Elena Rybakina loses her women’s singles crown in the quarter-final.
Elena Rybakina loses her women’s singles crown in the quarter-final. Photograph: Clive Brunskill/Getty Images

The two held their opening service games easily, but then it immediately got interesting. A brain fritz from Jabeur saw her go 1-3 down when she gifted Rybakina triple break point with a wild forehand long and two shots into the tramlines. She was duly punished.

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But just as quickly as Jabeur had malfunctioned she fired right back, earning her own triple break opportunities after a sublime three-shot, drop-shot rally that had the crowd applauding in awed appreciation of both players’ hand skills and footwork. A bullet of a return-winner saw them back on serve.

The set played out to the players’ strengths. Jabeur coming to the net often to put away balletic volleys and drop shots, pulling off the odd cheeky lob; Rybakina whacking forehands onto the baseline and snugly into the corners, like someone who had focused really hard on geometry in her maths lessons. Then hammering serves down from the sky with all the wrath of a god.

At 5-5, though, the latter was in trouble; a couple of loose errors bringing up a break chance for Jabeur, and a clean cross-court winner saw her go 6-5 up to serve for the set. But multiple frail second serves were punished by Rybakina to head into a tie-break. And she simply outhit Jabeur who couldn’t handle her power and accuracy. Rybakina secured the breaker 7-6 (7-5).

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Jabeur came into the second set bushy-tailed, winning break points thanks to a combination of a clever block return and a gentle drop-shot. But Rybakina rained down three massive serves to cut her off.

Midway through the set, Jabeur would wriggle out of a sticky spot by way of an ace of her own and a fortunate net-cord. Perhaps her Houdini act gave her the confidence for what followed. As Rybakina served to stay in the set at 4-5, Jabeur had other ideas. A couple of glorious groundstrokes gave Jabeur the chance to snatch it, which she did, with a leap Rudolf Nureyev would be proud of, to land a cross-court volley for 6-4.

Jabeur now had the look of someone who refused to lose, and uncharacteristic errors from Rybakina saw her 0-40 down in her opening service game. Jabeur broke. At 1-3 down, Rybakina had her chances to even serve with multiple break-points but Jabeur snuffed them out with a ball that clipped the right sideline by ooh, about a millimetre, and an ace.

As well-meaning supporters continued to butcher both Rybakina’s first and second names (though the majority of the crowd was against her) Jabeur continued her charge, breaking a second time to go 5-1 up. A double fault made for a briefly nervy final game, but she served out to complete the victory. The pair shared a warm hug at the net.

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That it was a hard-fought victory was evident enough, but Jabeur confirmed as much in her on-court interview. “It’s hard to play with someone who has such a good serve. It’s very frustrating to return. I got angry and then I got calm. If you try to play easy with her, it’s not going to work.” Before adding to laughter: “I wish we could exchange this match with the final last year.”

Jabeur’s next assignment: Aryna Sabalenka, the No 2 seed, who ousted Madison Keys in a routine 6-4, 6-4 win. (“I saw that she won very quick”, Jabeur said. Then jokingly: “I wasn’t happy.”)

Sabalenka, like Rybakina, is a hard hitter with a booming serve. She owns a 3-1 head-to-head record against Jabeur, but Jabeur has shown now that she can handle power. Just perhaps, the pirouette can prove mightier than the sword.

new balance

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