It is the final that no-one expected, a Tunisian against a Russian-born turned Kazakstani, but two weeks of intense play at The Championships has delivered just that – Ons Jabeur against Elena Rybakina, who play for the Venus Rosewater Dish in the Ladies Final at 2pm on Saturday in front of Royalty.
I did, a lot of times, imagine myself giving the speech, holding the [Wimbledon] trophy, seeing the trophy,. I did all of it. Now, I need really to hold the trophy. That's the only thing left for me. But I believe in that. I know I can do it. Ons Jabeur
Jabeur is dubbed Tunisia’s ‘Minister of Happiness’, but organisers at Wimbledon are far from happy that, despite all their efforts, Russia’s President Vladimir Putin is being handed a propaganda opportunity with the propsect of a member of the Royal Family presenting the famous trophy to one of his country’s athletes.
Russian Tennis Federation President Shamil Tarpischev was quick to praise Rybakina: “It’s great that everything turned out this way, we will root for her,” he said on Friday.
Andrei Chesnokov, a former Russian player who worked with Rybakina, told Russia’s championat.com website: “Lena lives in Moscow, grew up and became a player here. Let’s congratulate the Royal Family, they will have to congratulate someone from Russia.”
To be fair, Rybakina has done her best to deflect questions about her Russian roots, pointing out that she adopted Kazakstan in June 2018, just after her 19th birthday, because the country believed in her, and offered her financial support to pursue her tennis career.
Setting politics aside, the final promises to be a spectacle of contrasting styles, with Jabeur’s crafty classic game duelling against the raw power of Rybakina.
Jabeur’s journey to the final is the less surprising, as she is the World No 2 and seeded 3, and many expected her to be lining up against Iga Swiatek, the top seed, coming into The Championships, but the World No 1 from Poland stumbled early, her run of 37 consecutive wins abruptly halted by Alizé Cornet in the 3rd-round.
Meanwhile, 27-year old Jabeur made her way steadily through the lower half of the draw without dropping a set, until she met Czech Marie Bouzkova in the quarter-finals and then her ‘barbecue buddy’ Tatjana Maria in the semi-finals, both of whom she left behind in the dust.
In the top half, Rybakina did much the same, dropping her first set to Ajla Tomljanovic in the quarter-finals, who had taken out Cornet, and then pulling off a big upset in dispatching 2019 champion Simona Halep on Thursday, who was considered a shoe-in for a second title.
To suggest her game is one of pure power would do Rybakina a disservice and, although she leads the tour with the most number of aces this year, it is her heavy groundstrokes that give her an edge over her opponents.
Jabeur was asked back in January to make one prediction for herself in 2022 and, without hesitation, she responded: “I’m gonna win Wimbledon,” before adding: “Bold, huh?”
Her rise through the ranks has been cosmic, playing mainly ITF tournaments for nearly a decade before beginning to consolidate herself on the WTA Tour in 2017 until, 4 years later, she won her first WTA title at the Birmingham Classic, becoming the first Arab player to ever win a WTA event.
This year, she won the titles in Madrid, on clay, and at the German Open on grass, all of which served her rapid climb up the rankings to become the World No 2, behind only Swiatek.
Her remarkable rise has made her a hero in Africa, and millions of fans will watch her attempt to create even more history on Saturday.
Speaking to BBC Sport Africa, Hichem Riani, the CEO of African Tennis, said: “All of us in African tennis are very excited to see the results of Ons Jabeur.
“Ons is actually a social phenomenon in Tunisia. Everybody’s talking about her and she has a lot of confidence now.
“We all belong to one continent, and we are excited because it’s amazing to see her on this stage. Africa is the future of tennis, of sports, of everything.”
This will be the first time in Open-era history that two first-time Grand Slam finalists will meet at Wimbledon.
As the 3rd seed, Jabeur is the favourite on paper, but Rybakina shredded Halep’s hopes in the semi-finals, and history suggests that height generally prevails.
Jabeur, however, is attempting to become the first Tunisian, first Arab and first African woman to win a Grand Slam in the Open Era, so has much incentive.
“Tunisia is connected to the Arab world, is connected to the African continent,” she told reporters after reaching the final. “In the area, we want to see more players.
“It’s not like Europe or any other countries. I want to see more players from my country, from the Middle East, from Africa.”
She has been a staunch trailblazer for her region, and winning on Saturday would be the greatest achievement of her career.
“I did, a lot of times, imagine myself giving the speech, holding the [Wimbledon] trophy, seeing the trophy,” Jabeur said. “I did all of it.
“Now, I need really to hold the trophy. That’s the only thing left for me. But I believe in that. I know I can do it.”
It is her easy-going demeanour off court that has made her a hugely popular figure, especially back home in Tunisia, where she earned the nickname ‘Minister of Happiness’.
“It’s tough times in Tunisia, sometimes,” said Jabeur. “When they see my matches, [they] always say sports unites people. I’m happy they follow me. They’re pushing me to do better. Hopefully, I can keep the title forever.”
The 6 foot tall, big-serving Rybakina is also making history of her own, despite all the rumbles in the woodwork.
“I’m playing, already, for Kazakhstan for a long time,” Rybakina told reporters on Thursday when asked about her nationality. “I’m really happy representing Kazakhstan. They believed in me.
“There is no more question about how I feel. It’s just already a long time, my journey as a Kazakh player: I played at the Olympics, Fed Cup.”
Like Jabeur, Rybakina is enjoying the best Grand Slam tournament of her career, having never previously progressed beyond the quarter-finals.
The two players have faced each other 3 times before, with Jabeur winning twice, including their most recent meeting in Chicago last year.
Saturday’s final will showcase their contrasting styles, with Jabeur bringing an entertaining array of shots to her game, deploying slice and drop-shots to good effect, while Rybakina brings power from the baseline as well as with her serve.
The 23-year-old has hit 49 aces so far this tournament, 19 more than any other player, and has registered the second-fastest serve in the women’s draw at 122 miles per hour.
Jabeur is well aware of the challenges her opponent presents: “She serves really well, so my main goal is to return as many balls as I can, to make her really work hard to win the point.
“I’ve played her a couple of times. I know she can hit really hard and hit a lot of winners.
“I know that my game could really bother her. I really try to focus more on myself, do a lot of slices, try to really make her work hard.”
Rybakina initially wanted to emulate her sister in gymnastics and ice skating but, at the age of 6, her father, a huge tennis fan, said she should try a sport where her height would be seen as an advantage rather than a hindrance.
“It was always a game for me,” Rybakina said back in 2020. “Even now, I don’t think it’s a job. It was always a game and, if I cannot do something, I like to improve it, to fix it. I love everything in tennis.
“The Kazakhstan Federation made me an offer and the decision was easier,” she said
“I changed my citizenship to Kazakhstan because they believed in me and they offered. I was not so good when they offered. So they believed in me, and they’re helping me a lot.”
She is not the only one to have been lured to Nur-Sultan by the offer of world-class facilities and seemingly bottomless financial support: Yulia Putintseva, Alexander Bublik and Mikhail Kukushkin all represent Kazakhstan but were born and first represented Russia.
Nevertheless, the fact that Rybakina still lives in and trains in Moscow, makes for an awkward situation, given that the majority of other Russian-born players are banned from Wimbledon.
The 23-year-old’s battle for acceptance could not be further removed from the warmth and adulation that has surrounded her pocket-rocket of an opponent, Jabeur, whose trainer and husband, Karim Karoum, a former Russian-Tunisian fencer, has hardly been a focal point throughout her Wimbledon run.
Saturday’s final between the two is a classic clash of two distinct styles, with Rybakina hitting the ball a ton and Jabeur’s magic producing unfathomable plays.
“Interesting,” said Halep, a straight-sets loser to Rybakina in the semi-finals. “I don’t know [how] Rybakina is going to respond to Jabeur’s game. It’s changing the rhythm, it’s cutting the rhythm with many slices.
“I cannot say that Rybakina can keep this level. But probably she would if she really feels confident. So it’s going to be interesting to work, and I will watch it.”
Jabeur has an edge in a number of meaningful return categories, having won 46 percent of her points returning first serves, with Ryabakina at 32 percent, and 47 percent of her return games, well ahead of Rybakina’s 30 percent.
In service games won, Rybakina holds a surprisingly slender margin, 86 percent to 85 percent, while the Kazakh has been moving quite well for a 6-footer, but Jabeur is more fluid and flexible.
Rybakina, perhaps, is the most favoured, but recent history and the heart of many go with Jabeur.