Tunisian player is first Arab woman to reach round 4 of French Open

“My dream is to see a lot more Arab players on tour playing well,” Jabeur told Olympic Channel in August.
Saturday 03/10/2020
Tunisia’s Ons Jabeur in action during her third round match against Belarus’ Aryna Sabalenka, October 3 in Paris. (REUTERS)
Tunisia’s Ons Jabeur in action during her third round match against Belarus’ Aryna Sabalenka, October 3 in Paris. (REUTERS)

PARIS – Tunisia’s Ons Jabeur became the first Arab woman to reach the fourth round of the French Open as she beat eighth seed Aryna Sabalenka 7-6(7) 2-6 6-3 on Saturday.

The 30th seed displayed her trademark court craft to undermine Sabalenka’s raw power as she surpassed her previous best third round showing at Roland Garros in 2017.

“She’s such an aggressive player. But then I had to still do a lot of slices, drop shots, mix it up. I knew that could bother her a lot. I’m so happy that my game really worked today,” Jabeur, who won the Roland Garros junior title in 2011, said.

Sabalenka saved three set points at 5-6 in the first set, then led 5-1 in tiebreak, but a series of unforced errors allowed 26-year-old Jabeur to snatch it.

Jabeur’s level dipped in the face of some fierce Sabalenka hitting as the second set slipped away in little over 20 minutes.

But the Tunisian player, who became the first Arab woman to reach a Grand Slam quarter-final in Australia this year, re-grouped and forged 3-0 ahead in the deciding set.

She also had points for a 4-0 lead, but Belarusian Sabalenka upped her intensity and the decibels to keep herself in contention.

Sabalenka saved three match points at 2-5, then had a break point in the next game. But Jabeur remained composed as she brought up a match point and showed great touch to angle away a short forehand, then sealing the win with a first serve.

Jabeur, who made her debut in the world’s top 50 this year, said the key to her win was staying calm and weathering the storm.

“Today was about staying calm, to be honest. She was screaming, like fighting every point, screaming in some very important points. Especially when she got back at 6-6,” the Tunisian said.

“Before, maybe I gave up too early. Even like today at 5-1 (down in the tiebreak), probably the old me would have given that up. I’m progressing, I’m growing up as a person.”

In the previous round, Jabeur defeated Japan’s Nao Hibino in two sets to secure her a spot in the final 16, says a mental shift helped her break ground in her sport this year.

“I put something in my head that I kind of got sick being all the time in 50 or top 100. I know that I was able to win against some players from top 10, top 20,” said Jabeur, who rose to number 31 in the women’s field at the end of August.

“I was not afraid to push more or get injured. Usually I was kind of stuck in that side with my mind: If I want to push harder, I think that I will get injured. So I took that off my mind. It really helped me.”

The Tunisian tennis pro’s strong performance in the first two rounds of Roland-Garros was an impressive turnaround from a surprising first-round defeat in her last showing in Rome. That followed a series of break-out performances in major tournaments the US Open and Australian Open that made international headlines and drew inspiration from aspiring Arab athletes around the world.

Jabeur, from Tunisia’s coastal Monastir governorate, has used her platform to speak out for upcoming athletes in the Arab and African world.

“My dream is to see a lot more Arab players on tour playing well,” Jabeur told Olympic Channel in August. “And to be honest, I think it’s not impossible now.”

“The young generation is much more motivated,” she added. “I can see back in Tunisia, I can see that there is a lot of young, talented players and I hope I can really inspire them.”

As for her own ambitions, Jabeur hopes to push forward and achieve her goal of breaking the top 20 ranking.

“I always want to achieve the top 20 ranking,” the former French Open junior champion said after her second round victory.

“Obviously, it’s going to be different this year because there is not a lot of tournaments. But it’s the same goals. I’m still keeping my motivation on to really play good. To be honest, I’m loving it.”