RIYADH: On New Year’s Eve, Ons Jabeur was having a conversation with her coach and told him one of her resolutions for 2022 would be to try and claim a first victory over two-time Wimbledon champion Petra Kvitova.
Jabeur had lost all three of her previous meetings to the Czech left-hander and was 0-6 in sets against her. Should the opportunity arise over the course of this new season, she hoped she would be able to finally snap that losing streak.
The opportunity came along sooner than she expected, as Jabeur faced off with Kvitova in just her second match of the year. A mere 12 days after making that new-year resolution, the Tunisian got to fulfill it, defeating the 31-year-old with a mature and convincing 6-4, 6-4 performance to reach the quarterfinals of the Sydney Tennis Classic on Wednesday.
Speaking to reporters after her victory, world No. 10 Jabeur said: “Finally, after so many losses against her; it was a great match. I fought really hard. It’s not easy to return those powerful shots, but yeah, I have been prepared and I wanted really to win. So, I went for it.”
Jabeur is coming off a historic 2021 campaign, in which she became the first ever Arab tennis player to break the top 10, and peak at No. 7 in the world rankings. She won her first Women’s Tennis Association title, reached the quarterfinals at Wimbledon, the semifinals at Indian Wells, and came agonizingly close to qualifying for the WTA Finals in Guadalajara, missing out by just one spot.
Despite dealing with an elbow issue that troubled her during the closing stages of the season and contracting COVID-19 after taking part in an exhibition match in Abu Dhabi last month, Jabeur has kicked off 2022 brimming with confidence and hungry for further success.
“I want to continue to win and improve my game. Trying to get back as healthy as I can and play – I’m not saying injury-free, but to be able to compete 100 percent. My goal is really to continue in the top 10 and why not enter the top five? My goal is to win more titles,” the 27-year-old told Arab News ahead of her participation in next week’s Australian Open.
“I feel different, I feel more confident on tour. I try not to set a lot of pressure on myself. I’m just trying to enjoy it here. You know how it could be sometimes with a lot of pressure and hopefully this year I’ll try my best to qualify for the WTA Finals.”
Pressure is something Jabeur has had to deal with from a very young age, ever since she lifted the Roland-Garros junior title in 2011. Expectations were high and it took her years to translate her teen promise into success on the women’s tour. But through that long and winding journey, she got tougher, both mentally and physically, and has finally showed the world what she is capable of on a tennis court.
Her mental strength was on full display in her clash with Kvitova on Wednesday, where she had to fight back from a break down twice in the opening set, and once in the second, before overcoming the powerful Czech.
“I think as a person, I always believed in mental conditioning as a priority for me even when I was 13, 12, I don’t know, 10, I always believed that and I always had a mental coach with me because for me, I always say if you’re mentally ready, you can beat anything,” Jabeur added.
“If you’re not ready physically, if your tennis is not good, and mentally you’re strong you can beat it. And then if you’re physically ready and your mental is not ready then it’s really tough to overcome anything.
“So that’s why I always have that part ready and able to improve in that side. I had difficult times; I’m trying really to understand myself more to be able to improve that part. I’m trying to be more patient in my life, so I can be patient on court.
“So many things are connected and in general, I’m just trying to be a better person so I can be the person that I want on court.”
This time last year, Jabeur’s patience was truly tested as she was one of the players that had to go through a hard quarantine of 14 days in her hotel room in Melbourne, after someone had tested positive for COVID-19 on the charter flight she took to Australia.
Being locked in a room for two weeks right before a Grand Slam was far from ideal, but Jabeur prefers to look back at the experience in a positive way.
She said: “I always try to take the positive from every bad situation. I think staying in the room, I was actually training every day really hard; I was even more fit when I came out after two weeks.
“It’s never easy to deal with it at the time but now looking back, it was questionable for me whether I’m going to play good later or not. I had to really be able to make up for those two weeks.”
Travelling to Australia this year, Jabeur repeatedly checked the rules to make sure she would not face any trouble when she arrived. She admitted that her elbow was still not 100 percent, but she has looked sharp so far in her first two matches in Sydney.
She feels an added responsibility to live up to her top-10 billing and does not want to end up as a statistic for a lower-ranked player keen to pick up a first top-10 victory.
With big goals on her mind for 2022, Jabeur is in the process of making a new addition to her coaching staff, which currently includes her tennis coach Issam Jellali and husband and fitness coach Karim Kamoun. While she was not ready to announce who she planned on hiring just yet, Jabeur discussed what she was looking for in the person who will join her camp.
“Just someone with experience as an ex-player, someone who can help me with more their views, if maybe they won a Grand Slam, maybe they were No. 1 before, so I’m trying to look for that expertise. Nothing confirmed yet. But let’s see, maybe in a month,” she added.
The drama surrounding Serbian tennis player Novak Djokovic and his entry into Australia as an unvaccinated player with a medical exemption has been one of the most talked about topics worldwide, and the locker room is no exception.
Jabeur was not surprised the world No. 1 did everything in his power to try to compete in the Australian Open, especially considering he was targeting a record 21st Grand Slam trophy.
She said: “I feel like some players they blame him for coming, some players they don’t. I feel like we should respect his choice that he didn’t want to get vaccinated. If they didn’t want him to come, why did you give the exemption and everything? So, I feel like it’s tough what’s happening to him or to anybody; it’s a very, very tough situation. So, I don’t know. I have no idea.
“I hope it’s not political as people are saying. I feel like he’s going for a historical run this season, especially at the Australian Open, and he saw an opportunity to get an exemption so he took it, and you cannot blame him for that really.
“But I kind of feel for the Czech player, Renata Voracova, who got deported. It is really unfair that you deport her and for example he comes and plays. And I think the WTA or ATP (Association of Tennis Professionals) should speak about this because it’s really, really not fair,” Jabeur added.