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Jubilant Ons Jabeur conquers demons to capture Madrid title
The famously flashy Tunisian struggled in the second set, but bore up in the third to win the biggest trophy of her career.
Published May 07, 2022
WATCH: There was no new Jabeur in Madrid this week, just a better one as she claimed the biggest title of her career.
Consider the women’s singles final of the Mutua Madrid Open an intriguing two-hour lesson in the definition of talent and the creation of style. Ons Jabeur was the winner, beating Jessica Pegula by the rare score of 7-5, 0-6, 6-2.
“I honestly still can't believe it,” said Jabeur, as she smiled through her post-match press conference. “I went through a roller coaster of emotions during the past few days, just after the semifinal. I was really stressed trying to breathe like a pregnant woman.”
Dig past today’s score, and much can be learned about how a player organizes one’s talents. Daniel Coyle, author of the book The Talent Code: Unlocking the Secret of Skill in Sports, Art, Music, Math, and Just About Everything else, describes talent as “the possession of repeatable skills that don’t depend on physical size.”
Jabeur and Pegula each possess their own distinct mix. With Jabeur, witness variety. Most notable is her unsurpassed skill with the drop shot, that feathery court jester serving as Tunisian’s launch pad for leaving opponents feeling as if they’ve entered a house of mirrors. With Pegula, there is the talent of persistence, best personified by her laser-sharp backhand, consistency from the baseline and the earned mental toughness generated by hours of practice.
Singular as it appears, tennis is not strictly an individual sport. It’s a relationship sport, two athletes engaged in interactive competition, seeking to push one another into uncomfortable territory. That premise played out vividly in this final. Early in the first set, Pegula wisely sought to put Jabeur on the defensive. With Jabeur serving at 1-2, 15-40, Pegula took a backhand return, charged forward, struck a fine volley and soon went ahead 4-1.
But as Jabeur began to find her way, Pegula concurrently became more defensive. Jabeur broke Pegula at 4-2 and at 4-5, ad out, fought off a set point with a super two-shot combo of a powerful inside-out forehand, followed by an untouchable crosscourt backhand. In the next game, she broke Pegula, closed out the set at 6-5 and then held three break points in the opening game of the second.
Yet just when you’d expect her to snap open the match, everything became undone. With trademark tenacity, Pegula held and sprinted through six straight games. The first set had lasted 54 minutes. The second only took 26.
“She had great momentum the second set,” said Jabeur. “I cannot say much, but at the same time, I wasn't being patient enough with her shots. I could have stayed like longer with the rallies or tried to put the ball in, but I know she was playing really great.”
It was strange to watch Jabeur vanish so swiftly. Or maybe it wasn’t. Coming into this match, Jabeur was 1-4 in WTA singles finals. Not only had all of those losses been three-setters, but on three occasions, Jabeur had won the first set. Now, having been largely AWOL second set, she’d have to play yet another decider in a final, this time versus a fit and gritty opponent.
This time, Pegula was the one who failed to build off momentum. After the two exchanged breaks to start the third, Pegula played her worst game of the match, dropping serve at love with a flock of errors, including a double-fault to start the game and an overcooked backhand at love-40. Up now 2-1, the second set had become a distant memory for Jabeur, who used everything from her fine kick serve to a crushing forehand to go up 4-2.
Hoping to stay only one break behind, Pegula served at 2-4, ad-in, only to be beaten by a sublime Jabeur drop shot-lob combo. Two points later, Pegula was wide with a backhand, giving Jabeur the two-break cushion every player craves.
“After, I was like, 'No matter what you do, just don't lose your serve,'” said Jabeur. “It was tricky moments there. I felt like even my body language was much better the third set. I was trying to go more forward and be able to back her shots, because she was really playing good.”
I was like, 'No matter what you do, just don't lose your serve.' It was tricky moments there. I felt like even my body language was much better the third set. I was trying to go more forward and be able to back her shots, because she was really playing good. Ons Jabeur
Serving at 5-2, 30-all, Jabeur ripped a down-the-line forehand winner and then closed out the match with a fine serve down the T. Jabeur had hit 29 winners, to 14 for Pegula.
“I thought it was really high level,” said Pegula. “I thought we had some really great points. I'm happy. I wish I could have closed off the first set, not just on the set point but I mean like being up 4-1, I wish I could have maybe been more aggressive and kind of taken the lead there, but I was happy with how I bounced back in the second and thought I played really well.”
Over the last two-and-a-half years, Jabeur and Pegula have both made impressive leaps forward. As recently as the start of 2020, Pegula was ranked 76, Jabeur 77. Following today’s match, each will attain a career-high ranking, Jabeur matching the number seven spot she held last November, Pegula at 11. So how will they go about building their skills? When you’re that high up the rankings, is it the priority to make the strengths better or shore up the weaknesses?
Their respective upsides might well be in the serve department. “We were breaking a lot,” said Pegula. “It felt like whoever could kind of hold on to their serve and consolidate the break was going to win the match, especially in that third set.” Each player lost serve five times. Given that Pegula got in 94 percent of her first serves and Jabeur’s figure was 95 percent, the case could be made that each should have attempted far more on her first serve.
Here again, the words of Daniel Coyle: “Although talent feels and looks predestined, in fact we have a good deal of control over what skills we develop, and we have more potential than we might ever presume to guess.”