Anas Jaber is still unable to attend last year’s Wimbledon final. Her loss to Elena Rybakina in Center Court is still too harsh, too frustrating to make up for any tactical value Jaber might press to get out again.
But she said with a smile: “I can watch today’s game.”
Indeed, it would be great to watch for Jabeur, who was able to exact a measure of revenge against third seed Rybakina, 6-7(5), 6-4, 6-1, in Wednesday’s quarter-final on Center Court.
She didn’t get a trophy for it, but she set up another match at Wimbledon – this one against second seed Aryna Sabalenka, who beat Jabeur in the quarterfinals two years ago in straight sets. But a lot has changed since then for both women.
On the other side of the draw, unseeded but hugely talented wild card participant Elina Svitolina will play Marketa Vondrousova for another shot at the final.
Svitolina and Jabeur are the crowd favorites at Wimbledon. Jabeur, who is from Tunisia, is adored for her warm and charismatic personality and for her pioneering efforts as the first woman from Africa and the first woman from an Arabic-speaking country to reach a Grand Slam tournament final. She also reached the final of the US Open later last summer.
Svitolina, who beat top seed Iga Swiatek in the quarter-finals on Tuesday, has won over fans around the world for her tireless efforts to support and play for her native Ukraine. She also gave birth to a baby boy in October. Even Svitolina’s opponents can’t suppress their admiration for the outspoken Svitolina, who only returned to the Tour in April, but fought her way through the draw to reach the quarter-finals.
“She’s a superwoman,” said Vondrousova.
Jabeur and Sabalenka together represent the strength side of the draw, where, by chance, most of the best grass court players were grouped together after the draw. Rybakina, last year’s champion, said she believes the winner of Thursday’s duel between Sabalenka and Jabeur will eventually get the trophy, and many will agree. Jaber revealed, in a candid moment of self-confidence, that she is one of them.
“I think our role is stronger than the other part,” Jaber said. “But every Grand Slam final is a final, and you can change a lot of things.”
It was no offense to Svitolina and Vondrousova, but sometimes players will seize the most harmless insults to fuel an angry impulse. Jo Dory, a former British player and now a coach and broadcaster, said that in 1983, at the height of Martina Navratilova’s power, she once dared to state publicly that she had a chance of beating the great champion.
Dore made the comment when the Australian Open quarter-finalist was stopped by rain at one set apiece.
“Martina was furious,” Dory recalled on Wednesday. The next day she said to the press, “How dare Jo Jo say that?” “We all have egos in this sport, and we all have to use it at some point.”
Dory said her words were slightly distorted in news reports the next day. But sometimes the smallest things can be used to gain an advantage, and by Saturday’s final, Svitolina or Vondrousova may be looking to preserve the honor of their side of the draw, if they play Jabeur.
Given Svitolina’s popularity, Dory warned that Vondrousova, the least popular player still alive in the draw, could not be overlooked.
After Vondrousova reached the final of the 2019 French Open, her career was subsequently affected by injuries. But as a well-rounded left-handed player, she can confuse opponents with her serve and a wide variety of shots, from soft strikes to slam dunks.
“Wow, is she talented,” Dory said.
Could this be the stage where Svitolina’s captivating race ends? Or, if she wins, does she end up going up against Sabalenka, a powerful Belarusian whose nationality makes her an enemy of sorts for Svitolina?
Since Russia invaded Ukraine in 2022 with logistical support from Belarus, Svitolina has helped raise money for relief efforts in Ukraine and declared that every game she plays is on behalf of her country. She also said that she would not shake hands with any player from Russia or Belarus, even if she liked them personally.
And it came to light in the fourth round when Svitolina beat Victoria Azarenka, who is from Belarus. Azarenka and Svitolina get along personally, and Azarenka spoke out against the invasion when it began. Although there was no handshake after that match, Azarenka made a salute to Svitolina. But the fans booed Azarenka off the field – and it stunned her. Some booed apparently because they misunderstood them, blaming Azarenka for the snub. Others may have done so because of Azarenka’s nationality.
“I think people also need to know what’s going on and why there is no handshake between the Ukrainian, Russian and Belarusian players,” Sabalenka said after defeating Madison Keys 6-2 6-4 on Wednesday. “I really hope no one else experiences this reaction from the public.”
More immediate, of course, is her encounter with Jaber in their strength semi-final. Sabalenka knows that Jabeur, while known for her slices, drop shots and off-speed game, can also offload from the baseline when necessary. Sabalenka described Jabeur’s game as “challenging” and noted that her competition’s goal, to become the first Arab and African woman to win a Grand Slam tournament, was giving her a boost.
But Jaber has other forces driving her as well, similar to what pushed her on Wednesday against Rybakina. Jaber had not seen them clash since last year, but the walk on the court was eerily similar. To shake things up, I took the chair across from the one I sat in last year.
In a similar fashion, she is now on her way to erasing her quarter-final loss to Sabalenka here in 2021.
Jaber said, smiling again: “I will prepare and take revenge for two years.”