Ons Jabeur
Tunisia’s Ons Jabeur cries after receiving the runner-up prize following her defeat in the women’s singles tennis final against Czech Republic’s Marketa Vondrousova in the 2023 Wimbledon Championships in London on July 15, 2023. It was Jabeur’s third loss in a grand slam final. Image Credit: AFP

Three finals. Three losses. That’s Ons Jabeur’s grand slam record. So near yet so far must be the Tunisian’s lament. At 28, her chances of winning a tennis major are fading fast. Jabeur has three years to win one, or her grand slam dream will remain just that.

Women’s tennis is dominated by players in their early twenties. Iga Swiatek, 22, leads the pack with four majors. Aryna Sabalenka, 25, of Belarus and Elena Rybakina, 24, of Kazakhstan, are the Pole’s closest challengers. They too are grand slam winners. The newly minted Wimbledon champion, Marketa Vondrousova of the Czech Republic, is only 24. That gives us a fair idea of the enormity of Jabeur’s task.

Wimbledon setback

Wimbledon 2023 offered the Tunisian the best opportunity to win a major. Having played in two grand slam finals last year, the repeat appearance on the Centre Court for the Al England Tennis Championship final should have soothed her nerves. Moreover, she had despatched four grand slam winners — second seed Sabalenka, third seed Rybakina, ninth seed Petra Kvitova and Bianca Andreescu — during her flight to the final.

Jabeur won three three-setters en route to the final, only to slump to defeat against Vondrousova. The sixth seed who tamed the big hitters lost in straight sets to a technically strong unseeded player. The counter-punching didn’t work. It hurt.

Is Jabeur a choker? Losses in three major finals may point to mental fragility. Maybe, she needs a sports psychologist in her corner. Like Swiatek, who travels to tournaments with Daria Abramowicz.

World No. 6 Jabeur too has a sports psychologist, and the Tunisian has often credited Frenchwoman Melanie Maillard for helping her gain more confidence. That has been reflected in her four WTA titles, two Wimbledon finals, and a US Open final.

Lessons from Andy Murray

But Maillard, who has previously worked with French tennis stars Gael Monfils, Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, and Richard Gasquet, is not a constant presence on Jabeur’s team. Much of her work with Jabeur has been done virtually since 2017, although she’s been to some tournaments. If Swiatek’s success is any yardstick, Jabeur could benefit from Maillard’s presence in her camp, at least for the majors.

A French Open junior champ, Jabeur could also learn from Andy Murray, who found grand slam success after repeated failures in the finals. In fact, the Briton lost eight of his 11 major finals.

Marketa Vondrousova, Ons Jabeur
Czech Republic’s Marketa Vondrousova with the Venus Rosewater Dish poses with Tunisia’s Ons Jabeur (right) at the end of the women’s singles tennis final of the 2023 Wimbledon Championships in London on July 15, 2023. This second consecutive defeat in the Wimbledon final for Jabeur. Image Credit: AFP

Britain has never had a men’s singles grand slam winner since Fred Perry in 1936. And that was a millstone around Murray’s neck. All that changed in 2012, when he delivered Britain’s first men’s grand slam champion in 76 years by winning the US Open. Murray would go on to win two Wimbledon titles as well.

Similarly, Jabeur flies the flag for the Arab world and Africa. There have been African winners, but no Arab woman has gone where Jabeur has been. She’s the first to make the top 10 on the women’s tour and the first to enter a grand slam final. That brings pressure. Enormous pressure. So much pressure that her three grand slam finals ended in tears and a runner-up plates.

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It did little justice to Jabeur’s talent, which lifted her to a career-high of world No. 2. Maybe, she should emulate Murray by bringing a champion aboard. Ivan Lendl may not figure in the list of high-profile tennis coaches on the circuit, but the Czech-American guided Murray to three grand slam titles and an Olympic gold.

Eight-time grand slam winner Lendl brought a champion’s mentality to the Murray camp. And that helped. Perhaps, Jabeur could do just that. This is not to say that she should ditch her long-time coach Issam Jellali. It’s just that a champion in her corner could make her a champion.

These things matter in the pursuit of majors. Which is why top players have big support teams. A travelling sports psychologist and champion trainer could help Jabeur realise her dream.