New York: Ons Jabeur promised “not to give up” after three failed attempts to win a Grand Slam final and Tunisia’s ‘Minister of Happiness’ hopes she can finally live up to all the expectation and get over that last hurdle at the US Open.
The 28-year-old stood on the cusp of becoming the first Arab and African woman to win a major title before losing in the last two Wimbledon finals and she also suffered the same fate at the US Open 11 months ago.
Following her defeat by Czech Marketa Vondrousova at the All England Club last month, tears flowed down Jabeur’s face as she trudged up to receive the Wimbledon runner’s-up plate.
It was a defeat she described as the “most painful” of her career.
Jabeur will face stiff competition in New York as defending champion Iga Swiatek aims to restore her dominance after losing in the quarter-finals at Wimbledon.
Australian Open champion Aryna Sabalenka and 2022 Wimbledon winner Elena Rybakina will also be dangerous, while Jessica Pegula and Coco Gauff will carry American hopes of winning the title for the first time since Sloane Stephens’ success in 2017.
However, in order to finally hoist a Grand Slam trophy, Jabeur has to find a solution for her own struggles.
She has made headlines for collapsing under pressure despite her calm, skill-based style of play.
After winning the opening set against Rybakina in last year’s Wimbledon final, Jabeur collapsed to lose 3-6 6-2 6-2.
Then the Tunisian failed to cope with Swiatek’s power and fell to a 6-2 7-6(5) defeat to the Pole in the US Open final.
At Wimbledon last month, the weight of expectation simply crushed her. Facing an opponent ranked a lowly 42nd in the world, Jabeur appeared to be crippled by nerves as she failed to hold onto a 4-2 lead in the first set and a 3-1 advantage en route to a 6-4 6-4 hammering by Vondrousova.
Her preparations for the US Open starting on August 28 have been far from ideal and the Tunisian withdrew from this month’s Canadian Open in Montreal with a knee injury.
Nabil Mlika, who discovered Jabeur at the age of five and coached her for 10 years, has been worried about how his former charge will cope with the burden of expectations.
“I hope that she has fully recovered and will be ready both physically and mentally, because her spirits are currently very high,” Mlika told Reuters.
“I hope that she successfully deals with the tension and the weight of expectation at crucial times.” Jabeur is not the first player to lose a string of major finals.
American great Chris Evert lost her first three before finishing with a tally of 18, while Kim Clijsters, who lost four slam finals before going on to collect four majors, consoled Jabeur following her Wimbledon defeat.
“Hopefully I will be like the others that failed a couple of times to do it and it (the win) will come after. I’ll try to stay positive,” Jabeur said.
Andy Roddick also offered his help to the fan favourite. The American won his first major final in 2003 at the US Open but that was his only Grand Slam success. He then lost a final in New York and three at Wimbledon — all to Roger Federer.
“I actually sent her (Jabeur) a message after the (Wimbledon) final and said, ‘Listen if you ever want to chat I’ve been where you are right now but I have more faith in you winning Wimbledon than I ever had in myself winning Wimbledon.” No matter what happens at the US Open, Jabeur still has huge support from her fans back in Tunisia and they believe that she will be crowned a Grand Slam champion one day.
Swiatek wants to take it step by step
Poland’s Swiatek is favourite to defend her title at the US Open but after a stellar 2022 season some cracks have appeared in the four-times Grand Slam champion’s aura of invincibility.
The 22-year-old strung together a 37-match win streak last season, claiming two majors among her eight titles, and has triumphed at four tournaments in 2023, including the French Open.
But the gap between the Pole and the rest of the field has narrowed and she arrives in New York with the top ranking she has held since April 2022 under threat.
“I know from my experience already that being a defending champion is not easy,” said Swiatek. “I’m going to kind of take it easy on myself and just try to do everything step by step.
“Last year’s tournament was also really tough. I could be out in the fourth round if you watched my matches. So I’ll just fight and I’ll see how it’s going to go.” A year ago, Swiatek struggled at the start of the North American summer hardcourt season — falling in the last 16 in her two tune-up events — which cast a shadow of doubt over her US Open chances.
Before the tournament even began she complained about the balls at the US Open, suggesting the lighter ones used in women’s matches were tougher to control and presented a disadvantage to harder-hitting players like herself.
Adopting an underdog mentality, Swiatek’s play through her first six matches at Flushing Meadows was more gritty than glorious, but she improved gradually throughout the tournament before beating Ons Jabeur in the final to rubber-stamp her position atop the women’s game.
This year, Swiatek failed to go beyond the semi-finals in her two US Open tune-up events in Montreal and Cincinnati and she conceded she needed time to recharge her batteries.
“From my perspective I would say my tank of fuel is pretty empty,” Swiatek said after falling to Coco Gauff in last week’s Cincinnati Open semi-final.
“Honestly, I’m not even going to kind of regret a lot because I’m happy that I’m going to have days off now.”
Sabalenka has top ranking in her sights
Sabalenka has the chance to dethrone Swiatek and claim the world No 1 ranking for the first time at the US Open and the big-hitting Belarusian will relish a return to New York’s hard courts.
Sabalenka captured a maiden major at the Australian Open in January after a title run in Adelaide and continued to flourish during the US hardcourt swing by reaching the Indian Wells final and the Miami Open quarter-finals.
Having added accuracy to her thundering serve after a stint with a biomechanics trainer and being mentally tougher despite dropping her sports psychologist during pre-season, Sabalenka has notched up a 17-2 Grand Slam record this season. “It’s definitely one of the best years so far. I cannot complain about my results this year, to be honest,” Sabalenka told reporters shortly after her Wimbledon semi-final loss to Tunisian Ons Jabeur last month.
“The further you go, the more you want ... What do I expect at the US Open? Well just to do better. If I get to the semis, just do better than I did in the last semis.” NARROW MISS Sabalenka returns to Flushing Meadows knowing a title on her preferred surface can help her grab the top ranking from Swiatek after she narrowly missed the opportunity to do so at the All England Club, with the Pole losing in the quarter-finals.
The world No 2 has been knocking on the door at the US Open well before her stellar 2023 campaign began, as she reached her second straight semi-final at New York last year.
But Sabalenka, who along with Swiatek and 2022 Wimbledon champion Elena Rybakina has heralded the emergence of a women’s “Big Three” this year thanks to their dominance, has had mixed fortunes in her preparation for the year’s final Grand Slam.
The 25-year-old overcame a third-round defeat by Liudmila Samsonova at the Canadian Open to make the Cincinnati Open semi-finals, where she lost in three sets to Czech Karolina Muchova — her conqueror in the last four of the French Open.
“For me, it’s more about how you finish the year than during the year you’re first, second, you just go back and forth,” said Sabalenka, who was beaten by eventual champion Swiatek in New York last year.
“I’ll keep pushing myself and do everything I can to finish this year as the world No 1.”
Pegula, Gauff lead American women’s hopes
Americans Pegula and Gauff have recently shown they can beat the Pole and will lead the American charge at Flushing Meadows.
Third-ranked Pegula and No 6 Gauff each took down Swiatek en route to a WTA 1000 title in August, an auspicious sign for US fans who are longing for an end to an American Grand Slam drought.
Not since Sofia Kenin hoisted the trophy at the 2020 Australian Open has an American triumphed in the majors, with Sloane Stephens the last to win at Flushing Meadows in 2017 and Serena Williams’ reign an increasingly distant memory.
But frequent doubles partners Pegula and Gauff, who both reached the quarter-finals a year ago, are hoping to go all the way as solo acts in New York.
Pegula reached the last eight at Wimbledon and the Australian Open and she beat Gauff and the four-times Grand Slam winner Swiatek en route to her second WTA 1000 title in Montreal earlier this month.
“(I had) really consistent results all year this year,” she told reporters, after beating Liudmila Samsonova in straight sets in the Montreal final.
“Beating Coco and beating Iga were two really tough wins back-to-back, and being able to do that and then just come out today and play a really clean match was kind of great.”
The 19-year-old Gauff has been at the top of her game in August. She took home the biggest prize of her career to date when she won in Washington — only to top that when she won in Cincinnati.
That she was able to beat Swiatek en route to the final — having never taken a set off the Polish player in seven prior meetings — was the cherry on top of a sweet victory.
“I see a different Coco Gauff,” said ESPN commentator and 18-times major winner Chris Evert.
She pointed to coach Brad Gilbert, who reportedly joined Gauff’s team at the Citi Open in Washington, as a positive influence.
“He has been one of the most accomplished coaches out there over the last 30 years. I think that has given her an edge that she didn’t have before,” Evert told reporters.
“Her attitude and I just think her confidence now has grown to the point where, yes, she has been to the finals of a major, but now I firmly believe that she believes that she can win it.” Gauff, who lost to Swiatek in the Roland Garros final in 2022 and in the quarter-finals of the claycourt major this year, tried a more aggressive serve to get the upper hand in Cincinnati but otherwise remained true to her usual approach.
“My game plan didn’t really change from French Open to now. It’s just the execution was a lot better. That’s what I needed to work on,” she told reporters in Ohio.
“Strategy-wise, I know how to beat a lot of the players, but it’s all about executing.”