Ons Jabeur interview: Tunisian star 'very motivated' to earn historic WTA Finals berth

© Frank Franklin II Ons Jabeur, of Tunisia, returns a shot to during the third round of the US Open tennis championships, Friday, Sept. 3, 2021, in New York. (AP Photo / Frank Franklin II)

As the women’s tennis season enters its closing stages, Tunisian Ons Jabeur has her heart set on securing a historic qualification berth at November’s WTA Finals.

The prestigious season finale that features the top eight players in the Porsche Race to the WTA Finals will be staged in Guadalajara, Mexico from November 10-17 before it returns to its original location in Shenzhen, China next year.

Jabeur has emerged as one of the most consistent players in 2021, amassing 40 match wins over the past nine months – the fourth-highest tally on tour – and reaching the quarter-finals or better at five events, including a title run in Birmingham, a runner-up showing in Charleston and a trip to the last eight at Wimbledon.

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Ranked No 9 in the Race, Jabeur is the leader of the chasing pack looking to lock down a place in the WTA Finals. Three players have already qualified for the Guadalajara showpiece – Ashleigh Barty, Aryna Sabalenka and Barbora Krejcikova – and the competition will be as fierce as ever for the remaining five spots.

Just 1,000 points separate the players ranked 7-24 in the Race, with more than 2,500 points up for grabs from now until the start of the WTA Finals.

“It’s super exciting; you really don’t know who will qualify,” Jabeur told The National during a car ride from New York City to Chicago, where she is set to compete next week.

If she makes it, the 27-year-old would become the first Arab to appear in a season-ending Championships and it’s a goal she has been building towards for the past two years.

“It started from last year; I wanted to qualify for the WTA Elite Trophy [for players ranked 9-20]. But then they cancelled both [the Elite trophy and the WTA Finals] last year,” she explained.

“For me, this year I started with the hunger of winning matches to boost my own ranking; to be in the top 20, to be in the top 10. In the middle of the season I was looking at the Race and it was kind of fun; I like the competition. Especially after Wimbledon it started to get more real.”

The WTA Finals moved from Singapore to Shenzhen in 2019, with the Chinese city signing a record-breaking deal to host the event until 2030. In its first year, Shenzhen offered an unprecedented prize purse that handed champion Barty a $4.42m pay cheque – the largest sum earned by any tennis player at a single event.

© Provided by The National Ashleigh Barty is the reigning WTA Finals champion. AP

The Finals were cancelled last year due to the pandemic and the tournament’s future for this season was uncertain until the tour announced last week it had found a temporary home for it in Guadalajara.

Conditions in the Mexican city can be challenging due to its high altitude (1,550m) and the choice of location took many people by surprise, including Jabeur. Still, the Tunisian is willing to do whatever it takes to make it to the event, and has chosen her schedule carefully, opting to play Chicago, Indian Wells and Moscow over the next few weeks.

“Honestly I cannot complain, if I qualified, I’d be happy to go and play,” she said. “I know the competition is very high right now, especially that some players are trying to play every week. So we’ll see in a few weeks who will take the ticket to go to Guadalajara.

“I am very close to qualifying. I know it’s the end of the season and so many players are tired but I worked really hard my whole life, and especially this year, I cannot give up right now and say I’m tired or whine about the conditions in Guadalajara.

“I’m very motivated and I’m choosing carefully which tournaments I should play to give 100 per cent. I don’t want to make the mistake of playing all the tournaments; that was the team’s decision. We chose the ones we need to qualify, that’s our main goal for the rest of the season.”

‘I see it as a fun game’

Jabeur went 11-4 at the majors this year, making the second week at Wimbledon and Roland Garros, and the third round in Melbourne and New York. Reflecting on her grand slam season, the world No 17 felt like she brought a “consistent” level throughout, and described her maiden Wimbledon quarter-final appearance as a “fairytale”. Her main goal for next season is to make her slam semi-final debut but she must first focus on this final stretch of 2021.

© Provided by The National Ons Jabeur won her first WTA Tour title at the Birmingham Classic this summer. Getty

The frozen rankings last year meant that Jabeur did not officially finish the season inside the top 20 as she had originally intended to, despite posting great results and crossing several milestones. This season, she drew motivation from the Race, which reflects a player’s year-to-date ranking, without factoring in performances from the previous year.

With a host of players in the running for those last remaining spots in Guadalajara, will Jabeur keep close tabs on the weekly movements in the Race?

“I’m looking but I’m not that obsessed. I try not to focus much on the Race because you become obsessed and you forget about playing tennis. I try to focus on winning matches and getting a lot of points. I see it as a fun game,” she replied.

Fan favourite in New York

It’s been a long stint for Jabeur on the road, having spent the last two months in North America, and she still has three more weeks to go in the United States. Following her US Open third-round exit earlier this month, she stayed in New York to practice before driving to Chicago with her team on Tuesday.

“We’re actually good. I love staying here in the States. We’ve had good practices in the last two weeks, we saw some friends. It’s a big sacrifice for us [staying away from home] but I love being here. I got used to everything around here and I love playing tournaments here; plus I’m discovering that I have fans here, which I’m loving,” she added with a laugh.

“Sometimes in the street, sometimes even playing at the park, people recognise me, without even touching a racquet. Like, ‘I knew it was you, I love your game, fun game, keep doing the drop shot’. I like the reputation I have.”

© Provided by The National Ons Jabeur has said she is inspired by Leylah Fernandez and Emma Raducanu after the teenagers contested the US Open final. AP

Inspired by Emma and Leylah

New Yorkers have every reason to have caught the tennis bug after unheralded teenagers Emma Raducanu and Leylah Fernandez lit up the US Open by making inspired runs to the final.

“It was very surprising,” said Jabeur. “I know Leylah more and I always said she’s an amazing player and I can see her winning grand slams, this is the first final she made and I’m sure she’s going to win one very soon.

“Emma, I don’t know her much,” she said of the 18-year-old Brit who became the first qualifier in history to win a grand slam. “It’s a surprise, she was playing really good and I don’t think there is anyone who has played like that in the second grand slam of her life.

“It’s unbelievable to see teens playing that way. They inspired me and I’m sure they inspired a lot of other athletes. Honestly it’s good to have them on tour, to have new players coming up and winning grand slams, it’s amazing to see that.”

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