A Big Hug at the Net

By Giri Nathan

Flashy tennis players tend to have baggage. The flash might be the result of self-destruction or nihilism. (Consider Bublik, Kyrgios, Moutet.) The flash might be a good spectacle, but a little heartbreaking because it’s never quite backed up by wins. (Pour one out for Gael Monfils.) The flash might be a mask for a deficit of truer tennis gifts. (Now you be the mean one and insert a player of your choice.) But that is why it’s such a joy to have Ons Jabeur, who brings us all the sizzle and none of the guilt. In fact, her artistry is in service of winning tennis matches, which, as the world No. 4, she does a whole lot of. Jabeur has every shot in her racquet lying in wait, and as a general rule, she brings them out when she needs them. Not because she’s bored, or because she’s styling on an inferior opponent, or because she wants to spite an apparent detractor in the stands.

Does Ons Jabeur actually have detractors? Even people she’s just destroyed seem to relish a good hug at the net. Her charm is weapons-grade. Jabeur emphatically reps Arab and African tennis, possesses the coldest drop shot on tour, and is perhaps the only tennis player alive who could marry a member of their team and make it look like a wonderful and responsible life decision. If, hypothetically, your streaming docuseries is struggling to craft compelling character arcs, you can just leave her in front of the camera and let her talk about how she and her husband-slash-trainer used to bicker about inaccurate medicine ball tosses. To hear friends tell it, one of the shortest paths to becoming a tennis fan is to become an Ons fan.

But to fall in love with Jabeur’s game is also to share deeply in her disappointments. For all her successes last year—she won her first 1000-level title in Madrid and rose to a career-high No. 2 in the world—she also came up short in the two biggest matches of her life, her first two major finals. At Wimbledon, she was defeated by Elena Rybakina, which might have felt more like a squandered opportunity, had Rybakina not backed up that performance several times over by dominating this year’s hard courts. At the US Open, Jabeur lost to Iga Swiatek, just like everyone else did last year. These players are brutal outs. But it was hard not to feel as though two life-altering opportunities had passed Jabeur by. Somewhat of a late bloomer, now 28, would she ever reach two major finals in a season again? And did her career 3–7 record in finals hint at a struggle to close out big matches?

There wasn’t much optimism to be found early in 2023, when Ons crashed out in round 2 of the Australian Open and told the media she’d had difficulty breathing. She then underwent a minor procedure on her knee in February and looked shaky while finding her feet at Indian Wells and Miami. In the meantime, a Big Three had begun to take shape on the WTA—Rybakina, Swiatek, and Aryna Sabalenka—further obscuring the path for the Tunisian artist.

Tween Dream.
Tween Dream.

But she said it herself at the outset of last week: “The season starts in Charleston.” Everything before that was noise. Last year Jabeur was the runner-up at the 500-level tournament. This year, in front of a robust Jabeur fan base, she was once again spectacular on the green clay, which plays a little faster than the red stuff, like a transitional surface between the American hard-court and European clay seasons. Jabeur did not lose a set en route to the title. The final wound up being a rematch of last year’s—Belinda Bencic once again. Late in the first set, Jabeur produced the point of the tournament. Bencic lasered an approach shot directly at Jabeur, who leaped into the air to flick a tweener and then tucked a backhand-slice passing shot directly into the far sideline. Flash, quickly followed by function. It’s the most entertaining one-two punch I’ve seen all year, and it happened on a break point that prevented Bencic from serving out the set. Asked after the match how she came up with that, Jabeur answered in trademark fashion: “I don’t know! The ball was coming at me, I had to do something.” If only all impulsive problem-solving could be so stylish.

Above: Ons during her defeat of Belinda Bencic in the Charleston final. Just look at that beautiful Har-Tru. (Getty)