Jabeur closes the gap on clay

Former junior champion rockets into contention after a string of deep runs

Ons Jabeur, Roland Garros 2022, practice© Philippe Montigny/FFT
 - Dan Imhoff

Despite a soaring profile as North Africa’s sporting standard-bearer in recent years, Ons Jabeur remains unaffected.

Not one to let hype rush to her head, the 27-year-old has no qualms letting her true emotions show and in a career-defining 2022, there have been ample moments for celebration and a handful for heartache, too.

After three finals in four events, including a maiden WTA 1000-level trophy, here’s a look at Jabeur’s recent run on the surface that has elevated her to a leading contender for Roland-Garros.

Agony turns to triumph

After coming up painfully shy of capturing her biggest career title against Belinda Bencic at the WTA 500 event in Charleston last month, the Tunisian could not hide her disappointment.

It was her fourth defeat in five career finals.

“I told myself not to cry but it's very tough,” Jabeur said. “Many finals we lost now but hopefully it's going to come soon.”

Jabeur cites French psychologist Melanie Maillard for much of the improvement, particularly in processing the more challenging moments of life on tour.

In a sign of how far she had developed, she did not have to wait long for that second career trophy.

Following a quarter-final finish in Stuttgart, she landed the silverware in Madrid, avenging defeat to Bencic en route.

“I know that I was playing good. I knew that it had to come, like not now on clay, to be honest with you, I was more excited about the grass season, but I'm so happy that I didn't wait long, because I was really disappointed after Charleston and Stuttgart,” Jabeur said after her Madrid triumph.

“You know, I was really close and I know I was playing really good there. But I have been doing a lot of hard work to see that it's paying off.”

Fitness fuels winning ways

While Iga Swiatek has set the benchmark high this season with 28 straight match wins, Jabeur stands as the only player to reach three clay-court finals with her Charleston and Rome runner-up showings book-ending her Madrid title.

She arrives in Paris having claimed 17 of her 20 matches on the surface, 11 of those in straight sets.

It is quite the workload on the most physically gruelling of surfaces, but has left her match-hardened in time for her favourite major.

“We've been working really hard the pre-season,” Jabeur said. “I knew that physically I could handle anything.

“Just believing in myself … believing that I could play even four weeks in a row, I can do it.

“I am exhausted, yes, but it's part of my job.”

Jabeur entered the clay-court stretch at No.25 in the Race to the WTA Finals and arrives in Paris second only to Swiatek.

Only the best can stop her

While arguably in the clay-court form of her life, victories have not always come easy in recent months.

On green clay in Charleston, a win over Amanda Anisimova came from a set and a break down in the third set before Bencic had her number in a three-set final.

Upon the switch to European red clay, Jabeur rebounded to deny 2019 Roland-Garros runner-up Marketa Vondrousova in Stuttgart and easily accounted for former world No.10 Daria Kasatkina before good friend Paula Badosa halted her in a three-set quarter-final.

Her winning route to the Madrid trophy included victories over Bencic, Simona Halep and 12th seed Jessica Pegula in the final, while in Rome she conjured some of her fighting finest to reach the title showdown.

While Swiatek easily claimed that showdown, Jabeur had surged back from 6-1, 5-2 down to thwart No.4 Maria Sakkari in the quarter-finals before saving a match point to see off Kasatkina in the semi-finals for the second time this season.

Of her defeats on clay, world No.14 Bencic was the only player outside the top 10, with No.3 Badosa and No.1 Swiatek the only other thorns in her side.

Focus firmly on first Grand Slam title

The girls’ singles champion in Paris 11 years ago, Jabeur sets her sights on her fifth Roland-Garros main draw where dreams of a maiden major are well within her reach.

The experience of back-to-back WTA 1000-level finals has steeled her and after fourth-round appearances the past two years, nothing less than a second-week stay will do. 

“It helps me a lot confidence-wise, expectation-wise. It helps me be tougher with myself,” Jabeur said. “I need to be in the second week. I need to go above the other results I did in Grand Slams.

“Maybe other players, how they will look at me, ‘Oh, s--t, I play Ons’. I like them to say that.

“I enjoy Roland-Garros a lot. I have great memories with that Grand Slam.

"Honestly I didn't think about being the favourite to go there and people expecting me to do things but it's for sure a good pressure for me. I hope I will be ready for it.”