At the start of the Australian Open, I asked whether youth would continue to serve on the women’s side, or whether the old guard, led by Serena Williams, would make a counterattack. I didn’t anticipate that both things might happen at once.
Is Ons Jabeur, who beat Qiang Wang yesterday to reach her first Grand Slam quarterfinal, a veteran? Or is she the Next Big Thing? Right now, she’s defying all categories—including geography. Jabeur is from the tennis hinterlands of Tunisia, she’s 25 years old, she has been on tour since 2010, she has never been ranked in the Top 50 (she’s currently 78th and her career high is 51), and has never won a WTA tournament. But over the last week, she has beaten Johanna Konta, Caroline Garcia, Caroline Wozniacki, and now Qiang Wang to make the quarters. Along the way, Jabeur has become the most exciting “new” talent on a tour that is increasingly filled with them.
Her game, and her hairstyle, are somewhat reminiscent of the WTA’s breakthrough player of 2019, Bianca Andreescu. Like Andreescu, Jabeur can do anything with the ball, from anywhere on the court. She has the same blend of touch, power, and creative panache that have taken the young Canadian to the top of the sport, and, if anything, her shots are more fluid. Jabeur led Wang 29 to 11 in the winners department, and she hit them all kinds of ways. She seems as likely to carve a backhand drop shot from behind the baseline as she is to rifle a forehand up the sideline.
So where has this exciting talent been all of our lives? According to her, it has taken her awhile to figure out how best to deploy her various options and shape them into a cohesive attack.
“My game is different, I like to play differently from the other girls,” Jabeur said yesterday of her past struggles to settle on a playing method. “I have a lot of choices, I don’t know what to do at the end.”
Not surprisingly, Jabeur studied under French coaches, but says she’s “a 100 percent Tunisian product.” She trained in her home country from the time she picked up a racquet, until the time she was ready to travel the world at 17. For fans of a certain age, her flashy athleticism may hark back to Moroccan players like Hicham Arazi and Younes El Aynaoui. Now Jabeur, who is the first Arab woman to go this far at a Slam, hopes that she can set an example for younger athletes from her continent.
“I’m a quarterfinalist for the first time and trying to inspire many generations back home,” she said. “Either in Tunisia or the Arabic world, or especially in Africa.”
That’s a lot of people to inspire, and a big swath of the world to represent. But if somebody had to open up—or reopen—a continent for tennis, I’m glad it’s a player who’s this easy to watch, and listen to.
“It’s not impossible,” Jabeur said when asked if she had a message for the people getting up at 5:00 A.M. to watch her matches back home. “I made it.”
Welcome to the Grind, Kid
“Just grind it out, basically,” Kenin said with a shrug.
Grind it out, and grind Gauff down. After losing the first set in a tiebreaker, Kenin won the second 6-3, and the third 6-0. She had the more consistent ground strokes, and it was only a matter of time—and a matter of Kenin getting her emotions under control—before she made them work for her.
In the process, Kenin exposed what may be Gauff’s biggest weakness at the moment: Too many forehand mishits. Gauff had more power on her serve and backhand, but Kenin almost always makes clean contact on her forehand, and Gauff doesn’t. It’s certainly fixable—that’s what being 15 (and 16 and 17) is all about. For today, though, the 21-year-old Kenin is the more polished pro.
In my preview of this fourth-rounder, I said that Kenin must feel a little weird being so young, yet not being the new kid on the block, or the Future of American Tennis in this matchup. Afterward, the stress of playing a 15-year-old, and playing with so much media attention, was obvious. Both Gauff and Kenin were in tears when it was over. Now Kenin can enjoy her status as a young American hopeful, and the last American standing in the women’s draw. By the time this tournament is over, Kenin might be enjoying some hype of her own.
Coming Over the Ball, Getting Over the Hump
At this stage in the game’s evolution, can a player win big while relying primarily on a slice backhand? It’s a question that comes to mind whenever I watch Ashleigh Barty play. Obviously, Barty has won big with her slice—she’s No. 1 in the world and the French Open champion. But she didn’t ascend to those heights until she developed a two-hander to go with her one-hander. And when she sticks with the slice, she can find herself pushed well behind the baseline on her backhand side, with no easy way to dig herself out. At the very least, it gives her opponent an opening, and a chance to seize court position.
Barty’s opponent in the fourth round, Alison Riske, made the most of those openings in their two previous meetings. Most recently, the American had attacked her way to an upset win over Barty at Wimbledon last year. When she reached 4-4 in the third set last night, it looked like she might do it again. Barty, despite winning the first set easily and going up 4-1 in the third, couldn’t shake Riske. The home-country favorite—she was recently voted Young Australian of the Year—had been in control for most of the night, but suddenly there was tension in Rod Laver Arena. Were the fans’ hopes of seeing their first women’s champion since 1978 about to be dashed again?
Barty held for 5-4, and then did two things differently. With Riske up 30-15, Barty changed the pattern by throwing up a moon ball, and following it with a strong forehand, which won her the point. At 30-30, when Riske came to the net, Barty switched from a one-handed backhand to a two-hander on the passing shot, and Barty netted the volley. Then, at match point, Riske double faulted. Crisis averted. For today.
With two hands on the racquet, Barty was over the hump.