NEW YORK, Sept 9: Getting to a Grand Slam final is no longer new to Ons Jabeur. She figures it’s time to add a major trophy to her list of groundbreaking accomplishments.
And she’s sure she is more ready to do it at the U.S. Open than she was at Wimbledon two months ago.
Jabeur reached a second consecutive Slam title match without needing to produce her best tennis Thursday night, taking full advantage of a shaky showing by Caroline Garcia to win their semifinal at Flushing Meadows 6-1, 6-3.
“Feels more real, to be honest with you, just to be in the final again. At Wimbledon, I was kind of just living the dream, and I couldn’t believe it,” Jabeur said after ending No. 17 Garcia’s 13-match winning streak, which included a victory over 18-year-old American Coco Gauff in the quarterfinals. “Now just, I hope, I’m getting used to it. … Now maybe I know what to do.”
On Saturday, with a championship on the line, Jabeur will go up against No. 1-ranked Iga Swiatek, who grabbed the last four games, and 16 of the last 20 points, to come back and beat No. 6 Aryna Sabalenka 3-6, 6-1, 6-4 in the second semifinal.
The first step for Swiatek to turn things around came when she headed to the locker room after the first set — to use the bathroom and think about what to adjust on court.
“I needed to get it together,” said Swiatek, a 21-year-old from Poland who already owns two trophies from the French Open’s red clay, including one this year, but never had been past the fourth round on New York’s hard courts.
Sabalenka, meanwhile. Dropped to 0-3 in Slam semifinals for her career and 12-11 in three-setters this year. She broke for a 4-2 lead in the third set — and 17 minutes it was over.
Swiatek has emerged as a dominant figure in women’s tennis this year, with a 37-match winning streak and six titles. If she can defeat Jabeur, Swiatek will become the first woman since Angelique Kerber to win two major championships in one season.
The No. 5-seeded Jabeur, a 28-year-old from Tunisia, was the runner-up at the All England Club in July and now will be the first African woman to participate in a final at the U.S. Open in the professional era, which dates to 1968.
“After Wimbledon, (there was) a lot of pressure on me,” Jabeur said following a win that took barely more than an hour, “and I’m really relieved that I can back up my results.”
The men’s semifinals are Friday: No. 3 Carlos Alcaraz of Spain vs. No. 22 Frances Tiafoe of the United States, and No. 5 Casper Ruud of Norway vs. No. 27 Karen Khachanov of Russia.
With four-time major champion Arantxa Sánchez Vicario in her guest box — they traded thumbs-up signals at match’s end — Jabeur improved to 6-0 in semifinals this season and earned her tour-leading 92nd victory in all since the start of 2021. No. 91 came when she defeated Ajla Tomljanovic, who eliminated Serena Williams in the third round.
To Jabeur’s surprise, and delight, she heard her quarterfinal victory over Tomljanovic on Tuesday was drawing viewers back home, even though it was on TV the same night as a Champions League game between Juventus and Paris St. Germain.
“In Tunisia, it’s all about soccer,” she said. “But people were not watching the game, they were watching my game, which is impressive to me.”
That’s part of the way in which she is changing views about tennis in her country — and on a continent.
Since pro players were first admitted to major tennis tournaments, never had an African woman or Arab woman been to a Slam final until she did that two months ago at Wimbledon, where she ended up losing to Elena Rybakina.
In 2020, at the Australian Open, she became the first Arab woman to reach the quarterfinals at a major. Last year produced all sorts of milestones: first Arab player to break into the top 10 of the men’s or women’s rankings; first Arab to win a WTA title.
“Definitely saying out loud what I want to do is part of me achieving things,” said Jabeur, who dropped to her knees and let out a yell when the semifinal against Garcia ended, then followed that up by laying on her back in the middle of the court.
“I’m sure it’s a lot of pressure on her shoulders,” said Garcia, a 28-year-old from France. “But she looks like to be managing it really well.”
On this 75-degree (24 Celsius) evening under the lights in Arthur Ashe Stadium, Jabeur paid attention to her coach’s instruction to focus on going after Garcia’s backhand and finished with 21 winners — after one that was aided by a fortuitous bounce off the top of the net, Jabeur put up a hand to apologize, then blew a kiss to the sky — and just 15 unforced errors.
She delivered eight aces. She went 4 for 4 on break chances and never faced a single one.
When Jabeur went up a break in the second to lead 3-1 merely 40 minutes in, the match was not yet won, but it might as well have been.
After a moment of silence to commemorate the death of Queen Elizabeth II, Garcia won the coin toss and chose to serve, which made sense when you consider that she leads the tour in aces in 2022 (although hit just two on Thursday).
But Garcia got broken right away, thanks to four mistakes of various sorts — a netted forehand, a wide forehand, a long backhand and, most concerning and perhaps most reflective of nerves, what should have been an easy put-away volley she barely managed to make contact with and dumped into the bottom of the net.
It was a rather inauspicious and jittery start for Garcia, who hadn’t lost a set at Flushing Meadows on the way to her debut in a Slam semifinal.
“Mentally,” said Jabeur, who travels with a sports psychologist, “I was so ready.”
She plans to be again on Saturday. Swiatek will stand in the way. (AP)