Ons Jabeur wrote yet another page in her history book at the US Open on Tuesday when she reached the semi-finals for the first time with a win over Serena-slayer Ajla Tomjlanovic, 6-4 7-6(4), to become the first African woman in history to do so.
I think I'm gonna be fired from my job as Minister of Happiness. It is tough to manage my frustration. Tennis is a tough sport and I apologise for my behaviour. I really wanted to keep calm but the racket kept slipping away from my hand. Ons Jabeur
The Tunisian added this entry to her run to the Wimbledon final in July, the first woman from Africa to do so then, and she is now eyeing the US Open title as a distinct possibility of further trail-blazing.
“I believe more in myself,” Jabeur said. “After Wimbledon it was very positive.
“Even though I lost the final, I knew I had it in me to win a Grand Slam. And here I am in the semi-finals of the US Open.
“I’m just trying to do my job here, hopefully I inspire more and more generations from Africa. It really means a lot to me.”
The 28-year-old will face France’s Caroline Garcia in the semi-finals after the in-form 17th seed later dispatched 18-year-old home favourite Coco Gauff, 6-3 6-4, in Tuesday’s night session quarter-final.
Tomljanovic arrived in the quarter-final after a run which included a 3rd-round victory over Serena Williams, in what was most likely the 23-time Grand Slam champion’s final singles match ahead of retirement.
The Australian has revealed how Ash Barty’s retirement inadvertently helped her find a new level in her tennis career, with the mantle of being her country’s top female player spurring her on.
Barty was the World No 1 when she shocked the world earlier this year by retiring at the age of 25 just after winning the Australian Open, pushing Tomljanovic into becoming Australian No 1 overnight.
Having never made a Grand Slam quarter-final in her 10 years on tour, the 29-year-old gate-crashed 3 in the past 14 months and, not satisfied with making back-to-back Last 8 appearances at Wimbledon, Tomljanovic followed up her latest run at the All England Club with 14 wins from 18 matches during the American hard-court swing.
“I’ve never felt like I needed to step exactly into Ash’s shoes because I think it’s impossible, and she’s Ash and I’m Ajla, and we’ll always be different,” Tomljanovic said. “But I have felt a bit of pressure and, maybe, responsibility, to just up my game and, not that I’ve been thinking about it, but I think, subconsciously, it’s helped.
“Just the whole situation [Barty retiring] has helped me, in a way, just to develop more, and take on more responsibility and, kind of, have less doubts because when you’re backed in the corner you respond quicker.”
The Croatia-born Aussie’s campaign, though, came to an abrupt end against Jabeur, the World No 5, who was in attack mode from the start and never really let up.
“When she’s playing well, it’s very hard to find where to go,” Tomljanovic admitted later. “Just really impressed with her game.”
The Australian was clearly fatigued, both physically and mentally, after enduring the biggest spotlight of her career on Friday night when she beat Williams in a packed, prime-time duel, and then defeated big-hitter Liudmilla Samsonova in the Last 16 late on Sunday night.
At 5-foot-11 tall, she is a lean player with clean, elegant groundstrokes but, on Tuesday, she was playing with her left thigh heavily taped, which appeared to affect her serve, and she was not as sharp as she had been in her previous two matches.
Jabeur struck first, breaking serve for a 4-3 lead with a stabbed, mid-court volley-lob over Tomljanovic, and then used her remarkable bag of tricks to snatch the opening set.
The second proved a tougher task, despite Jabeur breaking Tomljanovic in the opening game, as her grip on the match began to waver and her serve deteriorated, allowing the Aussie to convert 3 of 4 break point opportunities.
There was a series of service breaks and momentum shifts as Tomljanovic edged herself ahead and served for the set at 5-3, but was then broken to love.
The Aussie had become expert at come-backs in this US Open, including from 2-5 down in the opening set to Williams and a 1-6 first-set loss in the 2nd-round against Evgeniya Rodina, while she also overcame 8 set points against Samsonova, but against Jabeur, Tomljanovic ran out of miracles.
It all came down to a tiebreak, in which Tomljanovic buckled under the pressure, dumping a forehand into the the net and double-faulting to hand Jabeur all the advantage she needed to advance when the Aussie whacked the ball into the net on the final point and the stone-faced Tunisian pumped her fist in a subdued celebration.
“Emotionally it was, kind of, difficult to manage the frustration,” said the 5th seed. “She makes it tough for me.”
It had been a battle and Jabeur admitted later that she had let her frustration get the better of her when she bounced her racket in frustration several times after coughing up multiple service breaks in the second set.
“I think I’m gonna be fired from my job as Minister of Happiness,” she joked. “It is tough to manage my frustration.
“Tennis is a tough sport and I apologise for my behaviour. I really wanted to keep calm but the racket kept slipping away from my hand.”
Jabeur’s variety and creativity are the hallmarks of her game, and she was very effective using her sliced backhand to deny Tomljanovic the kind of pace she excels at absorbing and returning.
The Tunisian controlled most of the points with a variety of spin and depth, looking for the right chance to unleash her big forehand as she made her way to scoring her 43rd victory of 2022 and into the history books, again.
She next faces Garcia, who is playing some of the best tennis of career and last month became the first qualifier to win in the WTA 1000 in Cincinnati.
“I know she plays really aggressive, and a tough game,” said Jabeur. “So whoever is going to be able to impose her game is going to be in better form.
“So I will try to play my game. I will try to be me.”