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Tunisia’s Ons Jabeur makes history at Wimbledon

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WIMBLEDON, England — Enough waves of good feeling coursed through Center Court on Thursday afternoon that they grew complicated to disentangle, not that anyone in possession of a heart would mind. All of a sudden and all in one mighty hug at the net they piled up: the latest possibility in an impossible story, the expansion of possibility to fresh regions of the world, a soaring show of sportswomanship, and a mother of two hoping other women might see her and gain a little more oomph.

Ons Jabeur, 27, went from remarkable to more remarkable in becoming the first Arab woman and first African woman in any Grand Slam final when she bested dear friend Tatjana Maria of Germany, 6-2, 3-6, 6-1. She and Maria, 34, hugged protractedly at the net after which Jabeur, forgoing the usual winner’s curtain call alone on the court, led Maria out there with her by hand so that the crowd could applaud both. Then Jabeur extolled Maria in an on-court interview for, among other things, reaching her first Grand Slam semifinal after twice giving birth.

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It lit up new worlds within the world — if Jabeur had not done so already by winning a second-tier big one in Madrid this year and reaching No. 2 in the world. It helped set up a final of nationalities that would have seemed fantastical a generation ago: Tunisia vs. Kazakhstan. That’s because Jabeur will play the final Saturday against Elena Rybakina, the 23-year-old Russian who took Kazakh nationality in 2018 and who dominated 2019 champion Simona Halep, 6-3, 6-3, in the other semifinal.

“I want to go bigger, inspire many more generations,” Jabeur would say in her news conference. “Tunisia is connected to the Arab world, is connected to the African continent. The area, we want to see more players. It’s not like Europe or any other countries. I want to see more players from my country, from the Middle East, from Africa. I think we didn’t believe enough at certain point that we can do it. Now I’m just trying to show that. Hopefully people are getting inspired.”

Tunisia, the smallish North African country of 12 million with a good history in soccer and Olympics, remained an unlit spot on the tennis globe when Jabeur picked up a racket at age 3 with the encouragement of her mother, Samira, in her birthplace Ksar Hellal near the Mediterranean coast. By age 9, Jabeur had moved an hour away with her family to Sousse, also on the coast, and the girl was telling people she aimed to win the French Open someday.

“Everybody laughed at me,” she said Thursday.

By age 13, she had gone to the capital, Tunis, to train at a national sport academy, and by age 16, she had won the French Open junior singles title. By the end of 2017, she had reached the top 100; by the end of 2020, the top 50; and by the end of 2021, the top 10, up there in her country’s history with sports stars such as four-time Olympic medalist Mohammed Gammoudi (men’s track and field), London 2012 gold medalist Habiba Ghribi (women’s steeplechase) and Rio de Janeiro 2016 bronze medalist Marwa Amri (women’s wrestling), not to mention the Tunisian men’s soccer team about to head to the World Cup for a sixth time. Jabeur joined that pantheon with a clever game that boasts the full toolbox of shots (all on display Thursday) and with an essence that made her something else: beloved.

Maria referred to her at different times as “such a great person” and “an amazing person” and “a really open person,” and as the quarterfinal here ended Tuesday, Marie Bouzkova of the Czech Republic welcomed Jabeur with arms opened wide several steps before the hug. “She’s number two in the world,” Maria said, “and she’s still the same person that she was many years ago.”

In her country, she has a nickname: “Minister of Happiness.”

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“Yeah, I mean, it’s nice of them to call me that,” she said Thursday. “It’s really unbelievable. Maybe they’re thinking about having a minister of happiness. It’s funny because [an] actual minister calls me, ‘Hello, Minister.’ It’s funny. It’s tough times in Tunisia sometimes. When they see my matches, always say sports unites people. I’m happy they follow me. They’re pushing me to do better. Hopefully I can keep the [minister] title forever.”

It seemed almost harsh, then, that her first Grand Slam semifinal after two previous quarterfinals found her opposite Maria, a player ranked 103rd who considers Jabeur “part of the family.” So when they finished, after Jabeur had played the kind of masterful third set a strong mind can summon — 10 winners, three unforced errors — they hugged, and Maria said, “I am so happy for you.” They had their moment together, not separately, and Maria went off waving amid appreciative cheers.

“She has to make me a barbecue now,” Jabeur soon told the crowd, “to make up for all the running.” And: “I love to see Tatjana like this on the court, and let’s not play again.” And, to a booming cheer: “I’m a proud Tunisian standing here today. I know in Tunisia they’re going crazy right now.”

Then the friendship and sportswomanship carried on because Jabeur got going about Maria: “If I didn’t see her two kids, I would say she never had the kids. It’s amazing how she moves on the court. It’s really inspiring for a lot of women.”

“Yeah, I hope that I can send this message out,” Maria said, “that I have two kids and I’m on this stage. I think everything is possible. I’m 34 years old with two kids and playing my first time semifinal in Wimbledon … Even with family, you can have a career and you can keep going.”

Then, back to the subject of the winner: “I mean, she is also such an inspiration, yeah, for a lot of women on this planet.”

She, Jabeur, has topped her original ascent with further ascent. She has spoken here of her mental coach, of meditation, of doing a better job of breathing. “I talk a lot about it’s nice to get out the feelings, all the stress,” she said. “It’s very important.” She spoke Thursday of childhood heroes Kim Clijsters, Serena Williams, Venus Williams and Andy Roddick and of recent adviser Billie Jean King.

“Always she tells me ‘one ball at a time’ and focus on that,” Jabeur said, soon adding, “I always remember her during the match actually when the score is like I’m behind or something like that.”

Yet until the previous Wimbledon, when she reached the quarterfinals beating Venus Williams, Garbine Muguruza and Iga Swiatek, she hadn’t harbored the Wimbledon dream. (The French Open, you know.) Then Thursday she got to a decisive set in a semifinal and roared to 5-0 with only one game going to deuce. Then she sat and toweled her face and adjusted her headband as the chair umpire said, per custom after changeovers, “Time.”

Out she walked, and two games later, he might as well have meant time for fresh realms in the world — or time for, like King, another pioneer.

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