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Tunisia's Ons Jabeur celebrates after defeating Germany's Tatjana Maria in the Wimbledon women's singles at The All England Tennis Club on Thursday. Image Credit: AFP

London: When Ons Jabeur sealed the match point that made her the first Arab to reach a Grand Slam final at Wimbledon on Thursday all she could think of was rushing over to her vanquished barbecue buddy at the net to give Tatjana Maria the tightest of hugs.

While Jabeur’s coach Issam Jellali jumped to his feet with raised arms to join 15,000 cheering fans in hailing the first African woman to reach the title match, Jabeur simply smiled as she ended Maria’s remarkable run with a 6-2, 3-6, 6-1 victory.

She then immediately turned her thoughts to fulfilling a vow she had made on the eve of the contest — that the “hug at the end will be amazing”. She was not wrong.

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The two players held each other across the net for what seemed an eternity, with both whispering into each other’s ears.

With the cheers still ringing around the stands, Jabeur pulled Maria to her side of the court and joined in the applause to salute the 34-year-old German, who had become the first mother of two in a Wimbledon semi-final since Margaret Court in 1975.

“I don’t know what to say. It’s a dream come true from years of work and sacrifice. I’m happy that’s paid off and I’ll continue for one more match,” Jabeur told the crowd after setting up a final showdown with Russian-born Kazakh 17th seed Elena Rybakina, who overpowered former champion Simona Halep 6-3, 6-3.

“Physically Tatjana is a beast, she doesn’t give up... she has to make me a barbecue for all the running I did on the court!” joked Jabeur, who is called “Aunt Ons” by Maria’s eldest daughter Charlotte.

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Ons Jabeur celebrates her victory with friend and foe Tatjana Maria after the women's singles semi-finals. Image Credit: AFP

Maria’s unexpected showing has been the feel-good story of these championships, with the German, who was ranked outside the top 300 in January, finally making the last four in a Grand Slam at the 49th attempt.

In fact, before this week her best performance at a major was a solitary third-round run at the All England Club in 2015. Of her previous 48 attempts, she did not even progress past qualifying 14 times.

“I wanted to share the moment with Tatjana at the end because she’s such an inspiration for so many people including me, coming back after having two babies I can’t believe how she did it.

“Let’s not play again, I’m good for now!”

Proud Tunisian

Before the players stepped on court, American great Billie Jean King said Jabeur was “using tennis as a platform to help Tunisia, help Africa and help Arabs” and the 27-year-old did just that as she beat Maria for the first time in a main Tour-level match.

“I’m a proud Tunisian woman standing here today — I know in Tunisia they are going crazy right now,” said the third seed.

“I just try to inspire as much as I can — I want to see more Arab and African players on the tour, I love the game and I want to share the experience with them.

“I saw some juniors playing out there and I hope to see them out here on Centre Court one day.”

While 27-year-old Jabeur was out to inspire a continent, Maria wants to show her two young daughters that it is never too late to follow your dreams.

Saving three break points

Australian great Court was among those watching on from the Royal Box as Maria was forced to save three break points in the opening game.

However, the 103rd-ranked German was unable to prolong that resistance as she dropped serve in the third and seventh games before Jabeur sealed the opening set when Maria smacked a backhand long.

Jabeur often caught Maria off guard with an abundance of canny drop shots and angled slices. However, when she hit one spectacular effort while twirling 360 degrees, the German chased it down to win the point.

The big-serving Elena Rybakina was too hot for Simona Halep to handle in the semi-finals. Image Credit: Reuters

Maria refused to hand victory on a platter to an opponent she calls “family” as she broke for a 3-1 lead in the second and held on to that advantage to draw level when the third seed sliced yet another backhand into the net.

But Jabeur finally lived up to her world No 2 billing to run away with the third set and bagged the most important point of her career to date when Maria swiped a forehand into the net.

Rybakina broke the 2019 champion Halep four times in the match in a dominant display on Centre Court.

“It was really good, today I was mentally prepared and did everything I could and it was an amazing match,” she said.

“I think it’s going to be a great match (against Jabeur). She’s a great player, very tricky player. It’s not going to be easy to play against her drop shots and volleys.”

Simona Halep
Former champion Simona Halep, who didn't concede a single set this year, lost in the straight sets. Image Credit: Reuters

Former world No 1 Halep had not lost a set coming into Thursday’s match but was immediately under pressure against the big-serving 17th seed.

Rybakina, who stands six feet (1.84 metres) tall, raced into a 3-0 lead with an early break of serve and had break points in all of Halep’s service games in the first set.

Showing no mercy

Romania’s Halep, seeded one place above her opponent, did well to stay in touch but failed to carve out any break points of her own in the first set.

Rybakina, the first woman representing Kazakhstan to reach a Grand Slam semi-final, showed no mercy at the start of the second set, breaking again to establish an iron grip.

Halep broke to love in the fourth game to establish a foothold but a double fault in the following game handed the initiative back to her opponent.

Rybakina, the ace leader in the women’s tournament, sealed an impressive win on her first match point with a backhand winner down the line to break Halep again, wrapping up the match in 76 minutes.