LONDON: It is one thing to take on the legendary Venus Williams, another to face her on the gorgeous No.1 Court at Wimbledon, and a whole other thing to defeat her after she spent a decent portion of her pre-match press conference gushing over you and your trailblazing accomplishments.
To say that Tunisian Ons Jabeur had a memorable Wednesday would be an understatement as she became the first Arab woman to reach the third round at Wimbledon by knocking out five-time champion Williams 7-5, 6-0 in a mere 80 minutes.
Williams, who at 41 continues to defy all odds with the timelessness of her career, has a friendly relationship with Jabeur and has practiced with her on multiple occasions on tour.
The American described Jabeur before the match as one of her “favorite people” on the tennis circuit and waxed lyrical about her historic achievements.
On Tuesday, ahead of their second-round showdown, Williams said: “Honestly, she’s just breaking down barriers. The first woman from her country to do anything that she’s doing. She just won her first tournament, so she’s got to be feeling great.
“I just think you’re going to see a whole ‘nother generation of women from North Africa coming into tennis. It’s going to be all owed to her. I think she’s inspiring so many people, including me.
“You can’t limit her to just inspiring women in the Arab region. She’s inspiring all kinds of women, including me,” she added.
Jabeur arrived at Wimbledon fresh off a history making title run in Birmingham that saw her become the first ever Tunisian, north African or Arab woman to lift a Women’s Tennis Association (WTA) trophy.
The 26-year-old has won more matches than anyone else on the women’s tour so far this season – she joins Aryna Sabalenka at the top of the leaderboard with 31 victories each – and at 24 in the world rankings, is the highest-ranked Arab woman to ever compete in tennis professionally.
Jabeur endured a tense first set, navigating through a mix of nerves and emotions before she hit her stride in the second.
“I was so nervous, this is the first time I play a legend,” she said on court after her win.
“The words she said about me, it was unbelievable. It motivated me even more, you know, I always try to inspire other generations. The fact that Venus says that I am doing it and I’m doing a great job at it, encourages me even more to keep doing what I’m doing right now.”
With her entertaining brand of tennis, which mixes power with her delicate touch and deft drop shots, Jabeur is typically a fan favorite. But against Williams at Wimbledon, the No.1 Court crowd rallied behind the American seven-time major champion.
“Not everybody was with me today, but it was a great game,” added Jabeur with a smile, before appealing to the spectators to support her in her brutal next round against 2017 champion Garbine Muguruza.
Jabeur’s best result at a Grand Slam was reaching the Australian Open quarter-finals last year and she is determined to go further and knock down more doors. Her path at SW19 is littered with major winners, and should she successfully overcome Muguruza, 2020 Roland Garros champion Iga Swiatek could be next.
Growing up, Jabeur did not watch much tennis and was not too familiar with the Arab champions that came before her, be it the Moroccan trio of Karim Alami, Younes El-Aynaoui, and Hicham Arazi, or her compatriot Selima Sfar, who was the first Arab woman to break the top 100 and peaked at 75 in the world back in 2001.
As she grew older, she has become well-acquainted with all of them and frequently gets compared to Arazi, who similar to Jabeur, had a magic touch that earned him the nickname the Moroccan (John) McEnroe due to his immense talent.
“I think I grew up with a goal in my head to really be one of the good players. It was like very, very personal for me,” added Jabeur.
One of the goals Jabeur set for herself at the start of 2020 before the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic hit was to break the top 20 and she is just four spots adrift of making it happen.
Arazi reached out to Jabeur on social media recently and the former world No. 22, who claimed wins over the likes of champions Roger Federer, Andre Agassi, Yevgeny Kafelnikov, and Marat Safin during his playing days, has provided some valuable advice since.
“He’s very nice and he’s given me a lot of advice,” Jabeur said of the 47-year-old lefty, who reached four Grand Slam quarter finals throughout his career.
“Such an honor. He gave me a few tips about the game. And honestly, he did say things that I related to during my career right now, and I told him, like, ‘we should meet and play.’ He said, he would have to work on his fitness and the condition to be able to play me.
“He told me things like being the only Arab is not easy to be on tour right now, and to be able to pass the quarter-final of a Grand Slam, like it’s something that I should do, because it was kind of I think with him, with Karim, with Younes, it was kind of difficult for them to pass the quarter-finals, so he was encouraging me to do that.”
Indeed, if Jabeur makes it to the final four at Wimbledon, she would become the first Arab ever – man or woman – to make it that far at a major.
The way she has been competing these past 18 months, that unprecedented milestone is well within her reach.