Garbine Muguruza, two-time major champion and former Wimbledon champion, saved 24 break points on Friday afternoon on Centre Court.
Generally, if a player saves that many break points in a match, it can be said that she responded well to pressure and answered the call.
It is true that if a player faces tons of break points, she is playing most of the match on the back foot, and that her opponent is dictating the action. Nevertheless, saving 24 break points is, by itself, a demonstration of considerable resolve and clarity. Ordinary players don’t do that, and Garbine Muguruza is not what anyone would call an ordinary player.
It had to have been frustrating for Ons Jabeur to continue to run into a wall of resistance on big points on Friday. She won just two of her first 15 break points. She lost a razor close 7-5 first set. Given Muguruza’s competitive chops at majors — especially under coach Conchita Martinez — it would have been easy for Jabeur to lose faith.
Jabeur’s talent has not been the question mark in her career. She can hit a full array of shots, with ample variety in speed, placement, angle, and shape. Knowing when to hit the right shot has been a problem, as has been the #INNERGAME challenge. Jabeur, at 26, has been around the tour long enough to absorb its lessons. She and her fans have been waiting for that moment when all the pieces fit. An Australian Open quarterfinal run in 2020 offered a first glimpse of promise, but then the pandemic blunted any momentum Jabeur might have been able to derive from it.
Jabeur had to start somewhere in her attempt to make another push toward greatness. Losing 24 break points to Muguruza offers a simple illustration of how hard it can be to climb the mountain to the top tier of tennis, the pursuit which currently occupies Jabeur’s life.
If Muguruza’s 24 break-point saves represented an obstacle to attaining greatness, Jabeur simply had to create more opportunities.
That she did. Jabeur created 29 break points on Friday, relentlessly hammering Muguruza with accelerations but also mixing in slices, mid-court balls, bunted half volleys, return pickups, squash shots from defensive positions, and other tools from a vast toolbox. Though thwarted on two-dozen occasions, Jabeur earned five breaks of serve. She won 11 straight points to open the third set — 16 in a row, including the final five points of the second set (when she held from love-40) — and fended off Mugruza in three sets. A 5-7, 6-3, 6-2 win brings her a first-ever Round of 16 at Wimbledon, and a magic Manic Monday date with Iga Swiatek.
Ons Jabeur is one of many WTA players with the game and shotmaking which can prevail against elite opposition. There is no shot Jabeur can’t hit. A jumping two-handed backhand winner which painted the sideline late in the Muguruza match evoked accurate comparisons on Twitter to Marat Safin, another outrageously talented player. Jabeur’s flair and variety — the stylings and shape of her shots — evoke the racquet skills of Svetlana Kuznetsova. Hitting a tennis ball well is not and has not been her deficiency.
Handling the heat of the moment — relishing the struggle instead of flinching when thrust into it — has been the main problem for her to solve.
Friday against Muguruza — on a day when the Spaniard did not play poorly — Jabeur kept coming up with answers to her opponent’s tough questions.
Monday, Professor Swiatek will ask more questions. If Jabeur can answer those queries, we might have a special and historic Wimbledon on our hands.