Dubai: Tunisian star Ons Jabeur says her mental strength and the ability to use pressure as a catalyst to perform better have enabled her to become world No 2, something unthinkable by her own standards, during the 2022 season.
“This has been a crazy year. I was expecting to finish in the top five to be honest, but it’s always hard to believe that I could finish in the second spot. I’m pretty glad that I put in the hard work to achieve my goals and, hopefully, I’ll continue to do much better,” the Tunisian told Gulf News in an exclusive interview.
The 28-year-old Tunisian’s career took a turn for the better when she replaced Emma Raducanu in the 2021 Mubadala World Tennis Championship, which Jabeur won defeating Belinda Bencic.
“It’s amazing to come back to Abu Dhabi, an Arab country where I feel at home. Last year it helped me get into the season as winning Mubadala title gave me a lot of confidence. So I really can’t wait to come back. Hopefully, this match will help me start a great season, especially with the high goals I have set for myself for 2023, it’ll help me be ready,” added Jabeur.
This year has been a landmark year for the Tunisian, who also made it to two Grand Slam finals — Wimbledon and US Open, despite being hampered by injuries right from the start, where she missed the Australian Open due to a back injury sustained in Sydney. Jabeur’s game found momentum when she reached the Charleston Open final and really hit top gear when she won the Madrid Open. The WTA 1000 title propelled her into the Top 10, a threshold she must have been relieved to cross.
Jabeur, who made it to the Dubai Championships quarter-finals after defeating former world No 2 Vera Zvonareva and Jessica Pegula before falling to former No 1 Simona Halep, could not sustain the momentum in France, but came back stronger in the final two Grand Slams of the year before booking her maiden place in the WTA Tour Finals.
So when did she feel she was hitting top form?
“I think it all started with the clay season in April, when I was playing great in Charleston and made the final there. I then ended up winning the title in Madrid. I felt like I achieved another level and it did kind of put a lot of pressure on me. But I love pressure, I love having that kind of motivation to continue to do better. Unfortunately, French Open was not great for me, but that pushed me to do better at Wimbledon.”
The Tunisian credits her experience over the years and her eagerness to raise the bar as the key factors that enabled her to make a difference to her career in 2022.
Great team work
“There’s been a lot of differences actually. I gained more experience, I’m much better physically and on the court, I always want to raise the bar very high for myself and I did just that this past season. Mentally, I always believed I could be one of the best players in the world and, yes, definitely putting in the hard work and having a great team behind me helped me to achieve the feat,” she added.
Another high point in Jabeur’s career, in fact her fan moment, came in June at Eastbourne last season, probably the last time, when she partnered 23-time Grand Slam champion Serena Williams, who was preparing for a final tilt at Wimbledon before retiring in September.
“Many players were jealous because I’m playing with her. Honestly, Serena is Serena. She is a legend and always will be. The fact that she returned and I get to be part of her journey, it’s really unbelievable,” she had said then before the tournament. “She’s such an inspiration and the fact that we’re playing doubles together, it’s huge news for me and it’s unbelievable,” added Jabeur, who understandably was nervous hitting with her.
This year has been a wonderful year for Arab sport with Jabeur, a role model for many Arab women, finishing No 2 and Morocco becoming the first Arab nation to book a place in the semi-finals of the Fifa World Cup Qatar 2022. The Tunisian calls for self-belief among the budding players, who aim to emulate her from the region.
“For me, everything starts with believing in yourself. Obviously, coming from a small country, from a region that didn’t have a lot of tennis players in the past, having the belief to be one of the greatest is really important. It starts mentally. You also have to make sure you build a great team that can stand behind you and support you to achieve all that and, obviously, having your family supporting you is very important as well,” she concluded.
Coric set for debut
Croatian Borna Coric will make his Mubadala World Tennis Championship debut in Abu Dhabi on Friday evening against reigning champion Andrey Rublev after American Frances Tiafoe was forced to withdraw from the UAE capital’s annual tournament through injury.
Twenty-six year-old Coric, who beat fellow MWTC contenders Cameron Norrie and Stefanos Tsitsipas en route to winning the Cincinnati Masters in August, will face Andrey Rublev at 6pm on the Championship’s opening day, at the International Tennis Centre in Zayed Sports City.
“I’m excited to be making my Mubadala World Tennis Championship debut in Abu Dhabi. I know there are a lot of Croatian sports fans in the region so it will be great to play in front of them. Playing in the Championship, with such a strong line-up, is the perfect start to my 2023 season,” said Coric.
En route to winning in Ohio, he recorded five successive victories over top-20 players, including World No 3 Rafael Nadal. He also won both his matches at the Davis Cup Finals last month in Malaga.