A trailblazer and role model in the Arab and African worlds, Ons Jabeur now has made an impression on the teenagers of the Hologic WTA Tour. On Tuesday at Roland Garros, 19-year-old Coco Gauff couldn’t say enough about Jabeur’s drop shot, and 16-year-old sensation Mirra Andreeva is aching for a practice hit with her.
“Makes me feel old, for one,” Jabeur told reporters after a first-round win. “Honestly, that was amazing, seeing that [Andreeva] talked about me, and she was doing well. I was really happy for her. You know, hopefully we can play each other. I can give her a signed picture. She can put it in her bedroom.”
At 28, the genial Tunisian is a dozen years older than Andreeva. If things improbably worked out, they could actually meet in the semifinals.
For now though, Jabeur is trying to gather herself after a difficult start to the season. She’ll face France’s Oceane Dodin in a second-round match on Thursday. Jabeur got there with a 6-4, 6-1 victory over Lucia Bronzetti, while Dodin was a three-set winner over French wild card Selena Janicijevic.
The slightly torn left calf that forced Jabeur to retire from her Stuttgart semifinal match with No.1-ranked Iga Swiatek, she says, is 100 percent. After missing Madrid, her ability to move seemed compromised in a Rome loss to Paula Badosa. The solution, Jabeur said after beating Bronzetti, is playing more matches. Winning, as always, will take care of that.
Jabeur finds herself in an interesting place these days. She’s been a Top 10 player for three years now, producing consistently excellent records of 48-19 and 47-17 the past two. Last year, she reached the final of Wimbledon and the US Open, losing, respectively, to Elena Rybakina and Swiatek.
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Her game -- featuring that deft, signature drop shot -- plays well on clay. Jabeur won the Charleston 500 event with straight-set wins over Daria Kasatkina and Belinda Bencic. For whatever reason, Roland Garros has been challenging. In five previous trips to Paris, Jabeur has reached the Round of 16 twice. Despite being a junior champion, it’s the only major in which she hasn’t advanced to at least the quarterfinals.
Jabeur was asked if that was on her mind when she met with reporters before the tournament.
“Well, it wasn’t so far, but it will be,” she said. “Maybe it will change, and I will have it on my bucket list. Of course, it is hard to play on clay because it’s more physical. I will try to go slowly but surely.”
Growing up, Jabeur idolized Andy Roddick, among others, but there were no local role models when she was playing in the Arabic and African Championships.
“I cannot remember names,” she said, “but it’s one of the best periods for me, because it’s like so innocent playing tennis. All you want is to win. We played like three matches a day.
“I think we had really amazing, talented people from South Africa, from Zimbabwe, from Morocco, Egypt, different other countries, Algeria. Unfortunately, we did not see all of them here, but hopefully that will change one day.”
Other notable Thursday matches
No.1 Iga Swiatek vs. Claire Liu: Swiatek leads the series 2-0, winning most recently 6-0, 6-1 at Indian Wells back in March.
No.4 Elena Rybakina vs. Linda Noskova: They have never played.
No.6 Coco Gauff vs. Julia Grabher: They met for the first time two months ago at the Billie Jean King Cup Qualifiers. Gauff, on home hard courts in Delray Beach, won 6-1, 6-3.
No.14 Beatriz Haddad Maia vs. Diana Shnaider: They have never played.
No.20 Madison Keys vs. Kayla Day: Keys beat Day the only time they’ve met, a second-round match at the 2016 US Open.
Mirra Andreeva vs. wild card Diane Parry: They have never played.