There will be a new U.S. Open women’s singles champion this year, and Ons Jabeur and Iga Swiatek remained in contention in very different ways on Thursday night in Arthur Ashe Stadium.
Jabeur needed just 66 minutes to dispatch Caroline Garcia, a quick-striking Frenchwoman who likes to imitate an airplane after her victories but was grounded by the weight of this occasion. Swiatek needed more than two hours to scrap and come back against Aryna Sabalenka, the Belarusian star who is a force of nature and one of the exceedingly rare ball-strikers powerful enough to dictate terms to the explosive Swiatek.
But Swiatek, still the world No. 1 by a cavernous margin, found a way to navigate in heavy weather, rallying from losing the first set and from falling behind by 4-2 in the third to prevail by 3-6, 6-1, 6-4 and reach her first major final on a surface that is not red and slippery.
She has won two French Opens on clay, the first out of close to nowhere in October 2020 and the other as the heavy favorite this June. But Swiatek, who has won six tournaments during this breakthrough season, can take her campaign and career to a new level if she can win her first hardcourt major on Saturday night.
She said she was proud that she had learned to adjust on the run and at rest; sitting on changeovers with her eyes closed while trying to solve tennis riddles. It is a method she has long emphasized in her work with Daria Abramowicz, her performance psychologist.
“Earlier I felt like my emotions kind of were taking over and I was panicking a little bit when I was losing,” Swiatek said. “For sure I grew up. I learned a lot, and the work we’ve put in with Daria for sure helped. Right now it’s just easier for me to actually logically think what I can change. And I feel like I have more skills to do that than one type of way to play. So I’m pretty happy that it changed because I think that’s basically the most important thing on the highest level.”
Jabeur has also worked on her body and mind and has been rewarded with the best season of her career. Sitting at No. 2 in the yearlong points race behind Swiatek, Jabeur, whom her fellow Tunisians have nicknamed the Minister of Happiness, brought some more sunshine to her country and her season on Thursday.
Garcia had the hottest hand in tennis with a 13-match winning streak. But Jabeur met the moment with power and precision; with variety and guile. She won the first set in 23 minutes as Garcia pressed and Jabeur slammed aces and chipped backhands that skidded low on the blue Arthur Ashe Stadium hardcourt.
She closed out the match, 6-1, 6-3, d punctuating the rout with a shout and a tumble before rising quickly to embrace Garcia, a friend, at the net.
Jabeur, who is good company as well as an increasingly great tennis player, has many friends on tour. And there is much to celebrate. After reaching her first Grand Slam singles final in July at Wimbledon, where she lost to Elena Rybakina of Kazakhstan, Jabeur has followed that up with a run to the final in New York.
But Swiatek, 21, deserves to be the favorite on Saturday, even though she and Jabeur have split their four previous matches and Jabeur has had a more straightforward run to her first U.S. Open final.
“Two in a row feels amazing,” Jabeur said in her on-court interview. “After Wimbledon, there was a lot of pressure on me, and I’m really relieved that I can back up my results.”
Jabeur, seeded fifth after being ranked as high as No. 2 earlier this year, is not only a symbol for Tunisia. She is a symbol for a region and a continent as the first Arab and African woman to reach a U.S. Open singles final.
“I take it as a great privilege and as good pressure for me,” she said in a recent interview. “I love that I have that kind of support, and I always try to be positive in my life and see even bad things in a positive way. I don’t just play for myself. I play also for my country.”
But the goal, as Jabeur’s poised and relentless performance made clear Thursday, is a first major title. She has made her serve a bigger weapon and though Garcia leads the tour in aces this season, Jabeur had the edge on Thursday, finishing with eight aces to Garcia’s two. Though her first-serve percentage was below 50 percent, she won 83 percent of the points when she put her first serve in play while Garcia, who played far below the level she had shown in recent weeks, struggled to win points quickly with her serve. Garcia finished with 23 unforced errors and just 12 winners despite her aggressive tactics. Jabeur had 21 winners and 15 unforced errors.
“She knows now where she’s going, and she knows now what she wants,” said Melanie Maillard, a French performance psychologist who has worked with Jabeur since 2016. “She’s given herself the means. She’s dedicated and so determined.”
It has been a long haul for Jabeur, 28, to believe that someone from a modest background and a nation that had never produced a top-10 tennis player could hit the highest notes in a global sport. She spent long stretches training in France and away from home despite her close connections with her family and her roots.
But Jabeur knew what she had been hearing since her youth about her talent: her innate feel for the ball; her capacity to create angles and change speeds and spins, even on the move.
“I’ve always believed in mental coaching,” Jabeur said. “I had a mental coach since the age of maybe 12 or 13, long before Melanie, but we’ve been working together with Melanie for a long time, and I’m very lucky I found the right person who could push me through and know me much better. It’s all about the connection between both of us. We did a great job, and we’ve come a long way. But I’ve always been someone who believed in the importance of mental health.”
As at Wimbledon, Maillard was in Jabeur’s player box on Thursday night alongside Jabeur’s coach, Issam Jellali, and Jabeur’s husband, Karim Kamoun, who is also her fitness trainer.
Though Thursday’s duel in Ashe Stadium represented new ground for Jabeur and Garcia — neither had been in a U.S. Open semifinal — it also was a flashback. They were junior rivals who played in the U.S. Open girls event in 2010 in the quarterfinals and also played three more times in junior Grand Slam events.
Jabeur won all those matches and has now beaten Garcia three times on the pro tour, all in major tournaments. Garcia said that though Jabeur’s spin and variety clearly posed her problems, she was not thinking back during Thursday’s defeat:simply struggling in the present to find solutions and let her game flow freely.
“It helped and not at the same time,” Jabeur said of her long-running head-to-head edge. “Because I know she was playing amazing tennis, and that puts a lot of pressure on you.”The pressure should be bigger still against Swiatek, who is gathering strength after failing to win a title since the French Open. Against Sabalenka, Swiatek’s quality of defense and returns ultimately made the small difference, and though Sabalenka has shored up her faltering serve in New York, she was still unable to put first serves in play when she needed them most in her closing service games.
The loss hit her hard. Sabalenka arrived at her post-match news conference wearing mirrored sunglasses and kept them on for the entirety of her interview as she spoke in tones much more subdued than her high-intensity, high-volume approach to thumping tennis balls.
This was a big opportunity indeed: a wide-open major tournament. But only two players still have a chance to win it, and it seems fitting that they have been, on balance, the two best players of the season.
“She has different game style than most of the players,” Swiatek said of Jabeur. “She has a great touch. All these things mixed up, she’s just a tough opponent. She fully deserves to be in the final. I think it’s going to be a great battle.”