Ons Jabeur was talking to her mental coach, Melanie Maillard, ahead of last week’s Ningbo Open about the extraordinary and unexpected stresses that have presented themselves in 2023.
Not surprisingly, Maillard managed to find the positive.
“This season,” she told Jabeur, “is a miracle.”
Indeed, after winning the title in Ningbo, China, Jabeur is in an enviable position to qualify for the WTA Finals in Cancun that begin at the end of the month. Marketa Vondrousova, Jabeur, Karolina Muchova and Maria Sakkari have the best chances to qualify for the last three singles spots available.
“We started the season not knowing if I could play, and now I’m racing to play the WTA Finals,” Jabeur told wtatennis.com before this week’s China Open in Beijing. “[Melanie] was telling me, `It’s a bonus.’
“And she’s right. I think this season is weird, special -- everything at the same time. I really try to enjoy it and appreciate it. I’m someone who believes in destiny a lot, so I believe it was meant to be like this. It will teach me a lot of things.”
On Tuesday, Jabeur’s up-and-down season continued. After a first-round win over Ashlyn Krueger in Beijing, Jabeur fell to Marta Kostyuk 7-6 (5), 6-1. But with a deep run in next week’s WTA 500 event in Zhengzhou, Jabeur can lock down a second consecutive appearance at the year-end tournament -- and a third straight Top 10 finish.
Only eight months ago, it didn’t seem likely.
There was knee surgery in February, forcing the affable Tunisian to miss the Middle East swing, a title on the clay in Charleston, a calf injury in Stuttgart and a heart-breaking loss to Vondrousova in the Wimbledon finals. Jabeur withdrew from the Toronto WTA 1000, citing another knee injury, and struggled at the US Open when a viral illness and her asthma conspired against her.
The title in Ningbo was an eerie microcosm of her uneven season.
For starters, somewhere between Paris and Beijing, the airline lost her bags.
“My tennis racquet did not arrive,” Jabeur said, laughing. “If I lose my bag, I believe I’m going to win the tournament. They said they couldn’t find it, but it was good -- they sent it back. I knew it was going to be a good thing for me in that tournament.”
The funny thing? She wasn’t even going to play the event, but poor results in San Diego and Guadalajara, left her in the market for a late wild card.
She went on to defeat Diane Parry and Tamara Korpatsch in straight sets before outlasting 39-year-old Vera Zvonareva in three sets. In the semifinals against Nadia Podoroska, Jabeur took the first set but, after landing awkwardly, needed a medical timeout. After dropping six of seven games in the second set, she rallied to take the final set 6-2.
The final, a 6-2, 6-1 victory over rising 189-year-old Diana Shnaider, was thoroughly convincing -- and, although none of Jabeur’s victories came over a player ranked above No.85, it was a blast of confidence for her. It was also, believe it or not, the first hard-court title of her career.
Before that match, her brother texted her of that possibility. Jabeur’s response?
“Is it?” she said. “I looked it up and it’s true. I really forgot about it for a while. I didn’t want to focus on it to make it extra pressure. Because I think I have enough already with the WTA Finals and the ranking.
“For me, maybe it isn’t my favorite because I don’t have enough time to prepare for the courts and the tournaments. It’s just a little bit in the head sometimes. I’m someone who likes to take their time on the court.”
Jabeur’s record on clay is a remarkable 64-24 (.727); on grass she’s 34-14 (.708) and less successful -- 110-89 (.553) -- on hard courts. She’s also won three titles on clay (Madrid and Charleston) and two on grass, in Birmingham and Berlin.
Zhengzhou and the WTA Finals, of course, are being played on hard courts.
Jabeur, ever adaptable, says she has come up with a solution. Part of what makes her so difficult to beat on clay and grass is her ability to slide into shots.
“Maybe that’s why clay could be much better, more fun for me,” she said. “Same for Wimbledon. I’m trying to slide [on hard courts] to make it more fun.”