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INTERVIEW: Ons Jabeur, A historic Wimbledon finalist

The first thought that comes to mind when I imagine this final is: If Rybakina wins, are we going to get the least-demonstrative winner’s celebration in Wimbledon history? After her dominant semifinal victory over Simona Halep, Rybakina smiled, shook her fist gently, and walked straight to the net for the handshake. For her, that qualifies as an operatic show of emotion.

Rybakina says her preternatural calm stems from her self-belief; if she’s playing well, winning doesn’t come as a shock.

“I mean, I’m smiling,” Rybakina said on Thursday. “I really don’t know how I’m going to react because I believe in myself.”

The 23-year-old Moscow native didn’t have much of a grass-court season before Wimbledon, but she has looked self-assured from the tournament’s start, when she edged Coco Vandeweghe and Bianca Andreescu in close two-set matches. Even when she dropped her only set of the tournament, to Ajla Tomljanovic, Rybakina still looked liked the more confident player on the court, and she proved it by winning the next two sets easily.

“We worked a lot with my team [for a breakthrough]. Of course, no one expected that it’s going to be this week at Wimbledon. But this is something we worked a lot. Everybody believed in me in my team.”

From her imposing serve to her flat and fast-paced ground strokes, the long, lean, 6-foot Rybakina has won with a traditional, linear grass-court game. Now, in Jabeur, she’ll face an entirely different method for succeeding on the same surface.

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It will be a classic contrast in styles between two first-time finalists at a Grand Slam singles tournament.

It will be a classic contrast in styles between two first-time finalists at a Grand Slam singles tournament.

Jabeur does little in a straightforward way; she slices her passes and uses drop shots any time she wants, from wherever she wants. Grass rewards power, but it also rewards feel, so even a stylistic contrast like Jabeur-Rybakina makes sense for a Centre Court final.

Along with that contrast, if the history between these two players is any indication, this match should be competitive. Jabeur and Rybakina have played two completed matches, each has gone three sets, and each player has won once.

Asked about Rybakina, Jabeur cited not just her pace, but her ability to change it.

“Rybakina is an aggressive player. If you give her little bit of time, she will take that away,” Jabeur said on Thursday. “She can play really good on grass because [she’s] aggressive and changing the rhythm.”

“It’s going to be an interesting match, but I’ll try to make her work hard to earn her points.”

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Jabeur is known for her variety and unpredictability, but she won her semifinal over Tatjana Maria by settling down and playing a more solid and conventional brand of tennis. That sounds like a safe way to go in the final as well, but might it play into the hands of Rybakina, who thrives on rhythm and would probably be favored in a slugfest between the two. For Jabeur, this match might be a matter of trial and error, of seeing what works; she has the flexibility to do that. For Rybakina, it may be a matter of keeping that calm sense of self-assurance alive for one more round.

Will Wimbledon have its first Arab champion? Or will it end up with a Russian-born winner, after banning players from that country months before the tournament began? It’s tough to call. Jabeur has risen to each challenge she has faced, while Rybakina has had an iron focus and sense of belief during this fortnight. I’ll say she keep that tunnel-vision for one more round—and right through her post-match celebration. Winner: Rybakina