Ons Jabeur can't stop making history. The 26-year-old became the first Arab woman to win a WTA title Sunday, defeating Daria Kasatkina 7-5, 6-4 to win the 2021 Viking Classic Birmingham. Playing in the third final of her career - each on different surfaces - the swashbuckling Tunisian added yet another milestone to her career.
Jabeur already made her mark as a talented junior, becoming the first Arab girl to win a junior Slam title at 2011 Roland Garros and the first Arab to win any junior Slam title since 1964. Only one Arab woman had ever broken into the Top 100, but after becoming the first Arab woman to make a WTA final at 2018 Moscow, Jabeur bested Selima Sfar's career-high of No.75 to become the highest-ranked Arab woman ever.
Jabeur's ascension since then has been steady and undeniable. At the 2019 Australian Open, she became the first Arab woman to make a Slam quarterfinal. She has made two Round of 16s since, both at Roland Garros. With her title in Birmingham, Jabeur has now established herself as a true threat on all three surfaces.
Jabeur spoke to WTA Insider from Birmingham to reflect on the path to her first WTA title to explain how she stays focused on the task at hand while shouldering the pressure and expectations of an entire region.
WTA Insider: How does it feel to finally win your first WTA title and, in doing so, become the first Arab WTA champion?
Jabeur: I have been waiting for this for a long, long time. Today was a very difficult match. I mean, we all know Dasha. She's such a tough player. I had to go for it. You cannot stress out or go back and play soft. You have to be aggressive with those kind of players. That's what I did today.
I am very proud that finally, the hard work is paying off and all the emotions from all the other finals are much better now. I can sleep happy tonight.
WTA Insider: In your two previous finals, you won the first set but lost in three. Do you feel like the experience of those finals paid off today, especially as Kasatkina put pressure on you in the last few games of both sets?
Jabeur: I was trying not to think a lot about that because, to be honest, it crossed my mind during the match. But this time I didn't win the first set, 6-2 (laughs). It was 7-5.
I started really good the second set and every breakpoint I had, I try to take it because I know she will try to break me. Today, we were both not winning our serve, so I thought maybe I had to win my serve as much as I can. And then, of course she's playing good, she's playing loose, she's everywhere on the ball. I'm very happy with the way I handled the pressure at the end.
WTA Insider: In the final game, you mishit an overhead that ticked the netcord and landed on the other side. You looked up and kissed the sky. Was that one of those "it was meant to be today" moments?
Jabeur: It happened also in the Watson match, when I hit the net one time and I was like, thank God. I have to thank God for this chance. It feels like the universe, God, everybody wants me to win. So I better put extra work in the next ball and I better really close it out with my serve.
WTA Insider: Looking back at the historic milestones of your career, what are you the proudest of?
Jabeur: Well, I think the combination of a lot of things. I don't see it like titles for me, but I see the way I'm still pushing through. There was a lot of disappointment during my career, the transition between juniors and professionals wasn't great, winning the first WTA title was hard. Same with the Grand Slams: the first round, second round, first round, second round. Staying strong and believing in myself, I think that was the biggest part that I appreciate a lot.
People now in Tunisia, they're more interested in tennis, more than before. So they're really excited. They're not happy anymore with the fourth round in Grand Slam (laughs). They want to see me finally win a Grand Slam. I wish it was that easy. So there is more and more pressure, different pressure than before.
Making history, yes, but on the other hand, there were not a lot of players before. So I hope I can make history by inspiring other people behind me, Tunisian or Arabic or from my nation will be great. That would be the best thing I can do. I hope I can inspire more and more generations.
WTA Insider: Speaking on your perseverance, early in your career everyone knew you had talent but it felt like the criticism focused on questions of work ethic and whether you were an underachiever. How does it feel to have done what you've done, particularly over the last three seasons, powering through those doubters, keeping your focus and drive through these tough COVID times, and reaching new career heights?
Jabeur: Well, unfortunately, they're not with me every day. They don't know what I am going through, how hard I'm working. If I tell people I work really hard - and I know I'm one of the players who works really hard on tour - no one is going to believe me because of "the talent", you know?
But I have to see it the other way around. I'm not born talented. I worked hard to be talented. That's what most people don't understand. They think I just picked up a racquet and then I knew how to make a forehand and backhand, which is not the case. To be talented, I played a lot of sports before. I played handball, football, a lot of things. That's how I developed the touch and everything.
So for me, being a talent was not helpful during a period of my career. I've been going through a lot of things, but I was patient because I knew that I'm a player who takes my time. I'm not a 19-year-old winning a Grand Slam right away or something. I take my time and I'm really more and more patient over the years, which helped me a lot, not to focus on the negative and focus more on the positive.
And I've got to tell you, I got a great team behind me. They were really helping me, even though we've been criticized a lot. But I understand the frustration of the people because they're not patient. They think tennis is easy enough and you can just win Grand Slam whenever you want. I mean, I wish I could win like a Grand Slam right away. Sometimes it's tough and it takes time.
But the most important thing for me is that I know it and I'm committed to what I'm doing. This is very important because that got me to win the title today and I'm sure it's going to get me somewhere else.
So happy to win my first @WTA title 🏆😍🍀🇬🇧🔥— Ons Jabeur (@Ons_Jabeur) June 20, 2021
Special thanks to my team Issam & Karim and my fans around the world.
Thank you for always believing in me 🙏💜
Hard work and commitment always pay off 💪
Thank you Birmingham! #Yallah #Grinta #TeamOJ pic.twitter.com/Z4QlStkbYi
WTA Insider: Speaking of your team, you were very vocal when you brought on your coach Issam Jellali and your trainer and husband Karim, that you wanted to show Tunisians that a Tunisian team could be successful. Does this feel like vindication?
Jabeur: I mean, I tried to go in that direction to prove people wrong, but I think that's the really bad direction to go because I know the work I'm doing with them and the work they're doing with me is good enough to make me go to the top.
I am very comfortable with my coach Issam and I'm very comfortable with Kareem, even though we've been criticized because he's my husband. Honestly, feelings aside, I don't care if he's my husband or not. If he's one day not improving me, then we're going to have a talk and we'll see what's going to happen. For now, we're doing much better. I think I'm the only player who played three matches yesterday and won three matches. So if we're talking physically, I'm good enough.
But like I said, I don't need to prove it to them because if I'm good with myself, then I'm going to have the results that I want. My coach, maybe he didn't work with a lot of players before, but I know he's one of the best coaches on tour. I really know that.
WTA Insider: That's a very mature perspective. It must have been more difficult to deal with the criticisms when you were younger.
Jabeur: It's still hard, though, because I think I have different pressure than other players since we don't have a lot of Tunisian or a lot of Arabic players. So I'm playing not just for me, but I'm playing for the whole continent. In other countries, they have a lot of other players, not just one. So I feel like the pressure on me is much more than than the others.
I'm going to tell you, it's hard sometimes. I'm just a human being, and sometimes I listen to negativity. But I am learning to say stop. I'm learning to not listen. I'm learning to focus on myself. I think I'm getting better at it. And honestly, it's helped me a lot because you cannot help it sometimes and you listen to small people talking and stuff.
WTA Insider: Are you surprised that your first title came on grass?
Jabeur: No, not really. Actually, in 2019 I won the ITF on grass and I think it was the same period as now. But honestly, no, but still pressure: talented player, likes to do dropshots, slice. So everybody was expecting me to play really good on grass.
But I tell you, coming here, it was very, very tough adapting to grass coming from clay. It was super fast. I couldn't do anything. The first few days I really couldn't put one ball in. I talked to my coach, I was like I have no idea how I'm going to play this tournament. He was like, we take it one step at a time, one match at a time, and you will get much better.
That's what we did. It worked. The plan worked. And look at me: My first WTA title.