Love at first sight: Jabeur, Fernandez keep fire burning in Paris

Jabeur and Fernandez won junior titles in Paris eight years apart. On Thursday they marched into the third round in women’s singles together.

Ons Jabeur© Philippe Montigny / FFT
 - Chris Oddo

In France it’s called 'le coup de foudre' - love at first sight. Many people fall in love with Paris the moment they set eyes on the city, and tennis players are no exception. 

Ons Jabeur, a 2011 Roland-Garros girls’ singles champion, confirmed as much on Thursday after she booked a spot in the third round of the women’s singles draw with a 7-6(4), 6-4 victory over Japan’s Nao Hibino.

“I want to go far in this tournament,” she said. “I love Roland-Garros, I love Paris. Why not put this love on the court?” 

Last year’s junior champion, Canada’s 18-year-old Leylah Fernandez, feels similarly. After her 6-4, 3-6, 6-1 triumph over Slovenia’s Polona Hercog on Thursday, she shared the impact Roland-Garros had on her the first time she visited. 

“Two years ago, I was here for the first time,” she said. “It was my first Grand Slam in the juniors. I think in the past my heart was just beating as if I was kind of meant to be here. I was happy to be playing on the clay courts, to be playing on these spectacular courts where legends played.”

This week in Paris both women are playing like they never want to leave, as they carry on a tradition of junior champions coming of age as professionals.

Six women have won the Roland-Garros women’s singles title after snagging silverware in Paris as juniors, including 2018 winner Simona Halep and living legend Justine Henin, a four-time champion. 

Leylah Annie Fernandez girls champion Roland Garros 2019©Cédric Lecocq / FFT

Could Jabeur or Fernandez be next? 

The pair may share their junior success, but each has taken a different path towards fulfilling their potential at the pro level. Jabeur, more of a late bloomer, didn’t manage a top-100 year-end finish in the WTA rankings until 2017, six years after her junior title at Roland-Garros.

Fernandez has made the transition from juniors to pros look relatively easy. She entered her third Grand Slam main draw with a ranking of 100, and could crack the top 75 if she is able to stun No.7 seed Petra Kvitova in the third round in Paris. 

But don’t be fooled - transitioning out of juniors has been far from easy, says Fernandez. 

“It's honestly really difficult transitioning from juniors to professionals,” she said in her press conference on Thursday. “Coco [Gauff] makes it seem like it's easy, but it's hard. You have to get used to the pace, to the heaviness of the ball. Juniors is still fast and still heavy, but it's not the same as the pros.” 

Ons Jabeur, Roland Garros 2020, second round© Philippe Montigny/FFT

Jabeur’s journey to the top of the game has been circuitous, but always there was an eye-catching, unique quality to her tennis. She’s a creative force on the court, and a daring shot-maker. 

The pandemic has wreaked havoc on the sport in so many ways, but one thing coronavirus couldn’t stop is Jabeur’s single-minded quest to raise her ranking.

After becoming the first Arab woman to ever reach a Grand Slam quarter-final at this year’s Australian Open, the 26-year-old Tunisian has continued her fine form since tennis restarted following a five-month hiatus.

She’ll aim for her best result yet in Paris when she faces the No.8 seed, Aryna Sabalenka of Belarus, in round three.

“The mindset is the same,” the North African said on Thursday. “I always want to achieve the top-20 ranking.” 

Currently ranked 35, Jabeur is playing like a woman possessed, eager to leave it all on the court before the abbreviated 2020 tennis season comes to a close. 

“I put something in my head that I kind of got sick being all the time in top 50 or top 100,” Jabeur says. “I know that I was able to win against some players from top 10, top 20. I know I had my spot in there. I pushed more. I was not afraid to push more or get injured.”

Fernandez is a linear player that relies on poise and precision. She’s well-balanced, level-headed and reads the game extremely well for her age. She says she owes a lot of her tactical expertise to the coaching of her father.

Fernandez explained that when she started playing soccer as a kid her father would help her understand the nuances of the sport. It ended up carrying over and enhancing her tennis. 

“He would always make me see the openings, not only follow the ball or follow the player who has the ball, but see the open spots, see the other players, how they're moving,” said the Canadian teen. “I guess that kind of transferred to tennis, too. We're always trying to see how the player's moving, the open angles, the open court, not only the tennis ball, where it is, where it's landing.”

Jabeur likes to lead rather than follow. She pushes and pulls the tempo of rallies and makes her opponents feel as if they’re on a string. 

“I love slicing on clay,” she said. “I know it really bothers some players. I love when the drop shot goes good. It gives me a good opportunity to be the master on the court.” 

Different players, different personalities, but the same overarching passion for Roland-Garros and the desire to leave an indelible mark on the terre battue.