London, United Kingdom – In the end, Ons Jabeur had to “dig deep”.
The sixth-seeded Tunisian came back from a set down to beat Aryna Sabalenka and reach the women’s singles final at Wimbledon for a second straight year.
The 28-year-old faced her toughest battle yet as Belarus’s second-seeded Sabalenka dominated the first half of the match, but Jabeur eventually fought her way back to win 6-7(5), 6-4, 6-3 in London on Thursday.
It was an enthralling display of power versus tenacity as the big-serving Sabalenka kept Jabeur on her toes until the last point of the match.
After her win, Jabeur credited spectators, most of whom were behind her, for helping her stay alive in the semifinal at the Centre Court of the All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club.
“The crowd kept me in the match because it was really difficult to deal with her [Sabalenka’s] serves and shots,” she said.
Crowd on edge
Sabalenka, 25, set the tone in the first set with serves that often crossed the 193-kilometre-per-hour (120-mile-per-hour) mark and left Jabeur with no option but to try to fire baseline shots of her own.
Both players had nerves in a set that kept the crowd on the edge of their seats. Come the tie-break, Sabalenka forced Jabeur into making errors that eventually led to the Belarusian winning the first set with Jabeur cutting a visibly distraught figure as a few close line calls went against her.
But urged on by the crowd, Jabeur picked herself up going into the second set and swiftly gained control.
Sabalenka, who was one of the pre-tournament favourites for the title, kept herself level thanks to some big serves, powerful forehands and slice drop shots that gave Jabeur a taste of her own medicine.
Halfway into the second set, the battle ebbed and flowed between the two players in scintillating rallies.
Jabeur eventually broke Sabalenka for the first time in the match, and the crowd was on its feet when she eventually won the set and put her hand to her ears in appreciated of the thunderous applause.
It was a complete turnaround from the first hour of the match when Jabeur was struggling to match Sabalenka’s power.
“I am learning to convert bad energy to good one so I kept pushing myself,” Jabeur said in post-match comments.
The third set saw Jabeur bag the first game and pump her fist in delight, but Sabalenka soon caught up with a near-perfect service game and let out a piercing roar.
The Belarusian sent down 10 aces in the match, compared with her opponent’s three, but made more unforced errors.
The turning point of the set – and the match – came when Jabeur broke Sabalenka in a hard-fought game by matching the big serves with fiery cross-court returns of her own.
She then wasted no time to win her service game and go 5-2 up for a cushion as she collected point after point with pumped fists and calls of “Allez Ons,” or “Come on, Ons,” from the partisan crowd.
Sabalenka let out one last cry of “Come on” as she staved off Jabeur from breaking her serve to win the match. Jabeur, now in full control, sealed a spot in the Wimbledon final with an ace.
The two opponents, who are good friends off the court, came together at the net in a warm embrace as the crowd applauded them for what Jabeur would later call a “crazy match”.
Sabalenka, who has been at the receiving end of boos and opponents’ refusal to shake hands with her because of her country’s stance on the war in Ukraine, was applauded as she left the court.
Jabeur, who had patted the Centre Court grass with one hand at the end of her quarter-final win over Elena Rybakina on Wednesday, this time bent down to beat it with both hands as if in disbelief of the turnaround she had produced.
“I am glad that I stayed in the match and kept improving [despite having lost the first set],” Jabeur said.
She will now face fourth-seeded Marketa Vondrousova of the Czech Republic in Saturday’s final.
Jabeur has lost to Vondrousova twice this year but said she is relishing the opportunity of having her revenge in search of her first Wimbledon title.
“Maybe this year will be all about trying it two times and getting it right the third time.”