Until the COVID-19 pandemic came along, Ons Jabeur was a player primed for bigger and better things in 2020. The 25-year-old Tunisian became the first Arab woman to reach a Grand Slam quarterfinal at the Australian Open, held match point on Simona Halep in Dubai and knocked out world No. 3 Karolina Pliskova during a quarterfinal run in Doha—seeing her ranking jump from No. 85 on January 12 to a career-high of No. 39 on March 8.
Feeling it made more sense logically to begin her WTA reopening in Kentucky, opposed to entering a pair of clay-court events in Europe, Jabeur picked up where she left off with a commanding win over Caty McNally on the first day of the Top Seed Open. We caught up with the No. 8 seed ahead of Wednesday's second-round clash with qualifier Olga Govortsova.
You had a chaotic journey to Lexington, with your original flight to JFK diverted to Detroit—and then you had to make the drive down after finally reaching New York. Has it sunk in yet that you've won a WTA match after all this time away? And what did you make of your play?
I was wondering if it was a sign for me to stay home or not! I’m glad I made it safe. I think I felt pretty safe to play. They’ve done a really good job. I’m proud to be part of this tournament, part of WTA.
I was expecting her to serve and volley more. Since I was ready for that, and I had a few passing shots, she kind of hesitated a little bit to come forward. I tried to play my game, because it really kind of annoys most of the players, with the drop shot. I tried to move her a lot, which helped me to be more aggressive and take the opportunity to win more points. I think I had the game under control, and I really cannot wait to get more of my rhythm back.
Before the pandemic shut down the tour, you really were playing some tremendous tennis. Your breakout results all came in places with hot temperatures. How does it feel to be able to restart in a place like Lexington that offers somewhat similar conditions?
I’m really glad that I’m playing well in these conditions. It’s really humid in here and not easy to play. It’s proves more that I’ve improved physically, that I’m able to play long matches, that I’m really present on the court. It’s good to play with the sun, better than when it’s cold. I cannot wait to play more. I think New York is also going to be humid and hot. I’m ready and I trust my fitness.
You have touched on incorporating meditation into your life during the break. Is this a technique you've always included as part your routine, or one you've grown to embrace and will now carry with you more moving forward?
I was meditating at the Australian Open. Now, I do meditate, work on myself even more, so I can improve. For example, manage my emotions on court. It’s not easy to be a professional tennis player, you have a lot of stress around you. Especially as I’ve played really good lately, so everybody is expecting me to play even better. I think I’m progressing, I like the way I am on or outside the court. I hope I can continue this work. There’s always room for improvement, and I think I’m ready for it.
What does it take to commit to meditation? Do you set a schedule for it; do you need to be in a quiet place; or turn to it when you feel it's necessary?
I go with my intuition, with my feelings. Every time I need to meditate or relax more, that’s when I do it. I always follow my heart and my feelings. I don’t do it every day. I think that’s what makes me. I don’t like to set up routines. If I feel like I have to do something, then I don’t do it. It depends what meditation I need. Sometimes it’s to relax and sometimes to be motivated. It really helps me get better on the court.
Has anything surprised you, either about your travel experience or first few days in Kentucky, knowing it was going to be much different than before?
I don’t mind these conditions. I find it really fair, because it makes me feel safe. But I’m not looking forward to play Cincinnati and New York, it’s really, really strict. I hope they can keep conditions like this. Tennis players should be responsible and not have security or be fined to leave the hotel. I like to feel like I’m more free. Even if I decided to go out, I think I’d take care of myself. I don’t want to catch the virus. Let's see how it's going to be. For me, it’s going to be very tough mentally.
What's something that you weren't expecting to learn about yourself while the tour was on pause?
I was enjoying more of myself. I took a small vacation, which helped me disconnect a little bit from tennis. I got more close with my husband, which is a good thing (laughter). Sometimes the opposite happens. We got to discuss things. We had a really good program to practice and enjoy at the same time. I had the chance to do the things I never had the chance to do. I feel more fresh mentally to start again and play tennis.