The All England Club’s nightmare scenario of a Wimbledon final between players from Belarus and Ukraine has moved a step closer, with Aryna Sabalenka and Elina Svitolina the favourites to emerge from Thursday’s semis on Centre Court.
With tennis already an outlier in the way it has welcomed Russian players into the fold, the most high-profile sporting encounter between citizens of the two sides in the conflict could take place in front of the Princess of Wales on Saturday.
In her role as patron of the All England club, the Princess also faces the possibility of handing a trophy to a Belarusian – Sabalenka, the No2 seed and clear favourite — delivering a propaganda coup for the aggressors in the Eastern European conflict.
One of the two remaining obstacles to such an outcome is the player who, on the day after Svitolina’s heroics against top seed Iga Swiatek, became another darling of the Wimbledon courts.
Ons Jabeur, the Tunisian who now faces Sabalenka, carried into her match against No 3 seed Elena Rybakina the memory of defeat by the same player in last year’s final — an encounter she has not been able to bring herself to watch back since. ‘Until this day, I couldn’t watch this match. I can watch today’s match. That’s OK! But not last year’s,’ she said, smiling, after extracting this revenge.
Belarusian Aryna Sabalenka (left), who is favourite to win the women’s singles at Wimbledon, could face Ukrainian Elina Svitolina (right) in the final in a potential nightmare scenario
Sabalenka will first have to get past Ons Jabeur (pictured), who defeated Elena Rybakina
Kate Middleton (right) faces the prospect of handing the trophy over to a Belarusian player
She did not intend to let history repeat itself. Rybakina, an inscrutable, silent assassin, wound up her almighty serves, approaching 120mph, but Jabeur just punched them straight back, seeing them and attacking them in a way which eventually just ground her opponent down.
‘If you want to hit hard I’m ready to hit hard too,’ was her description of the approach she adopted. ‘If you play easy with her, it’s not going to work.’
Last year certainly was on her mind. She even made sure she changed seats at the umpire’s chair. ‘I went for the other seat that she won from last year. Maybe it’s the seat that made me win today!’ she revealed.
It helped that Rybakina landed only 62 per cent of her first serves in the first set and a mere 28 per cent in the third, as her game collapsed in the weight of Jabeur’s relentless power and accuracy.
Last year’s champion Rybakina won the first set but was up against it from then on in the match
But Jabeur also found a new level, thumping returns into the favourite’s feet and at times straight past her. She did not drown in her wish for revenge. Her 13 winners and a mere three unforced errors revealed that.
It wasn’t just raw power from her, either. They call her the Minister for Happiness back in Tunisia for good reason. There were the occasional sumptuous drop shots, though fewer than usual. There were the sliced squash shots — three of them in succession in one third set exchange — delighting an arena which has always loved the maverick moments and the off-the-cuff.
The pivotal moment came after Jabeur had wasted a set point and allowed Rybakina to take the first set into a tiebreak and win it. ‘It should have gone my way,’ she reflected of that opener. ‘I kept yelling at my coach, “You were telling me to play like this!”’
But she was undaunted, powering a forehand down the line and despatching a backhand return on Rybakina’s serve to secure a late break in the second and take the match into a third set, just like last year’s final. Only this time, Rybakina’s race was run.
‘If you want to hit hard I’m ready to hit hard too,’ Jabeur said after her victory on Centre Court
She didn’t intend to let history repeat itself after missing out to her opponent in last year’s final
Sabalenka, another monumental hitter who has won three of her four meetings with Jabeur, presents another huge obstacle. She took an hour and a half to ease past American Madison Keys, 6-2, 6-4 on Wednesday.
Svitolina, handed a wild card here having been out of the game after giving birth, will have most of the British nation behind her in Thursday’s earlier semi against unseeded Czech Marketa Vondrousova, the world No 42.
Jabeur said that the way she beat Rybakina had helped her believe that she can stand up against the most powerful hitters ‘and go 100 per cent’ — fortifying her for her semi-final in which she felt she had nothing to lose.
‘Hopefully the crowd will be with me,’ she said. The All England club most certainly will.