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Ons Jabeur and the magnification of progress

Ons Jabeur did something hugely important on Wednesday at the Madrid Open. She defeated the one former Madrid Open champion left in the field, also one of the best clay-court players on tour.

Many people, including yours truly, viewed this quarterfinal between Jabeur and Simona Halep as a match which would likely produce the champion at this tournament. The rest of the bracket has been blown wide open. Jabeur was the highest-ranked WTA player left in the field, Halep the most credentialed. Whoever won this early match, played at lunchtime before a large number of men’s matches due to the tournament’s unusually imbalanced schedule, was going to be able to pull up her feet, relax, and prepare for the semifinals with added time to recover. The quarterfinalists in the top half of the draw won’t have that luxury, given they will play much later on Wednesday.

After hammering Halep, 3 and 2, Jabeur is the favorite in Spain. Now there is just one thing left to do after winning a crucial match: Magnify its importance and value by going all the way.

Jabeur has never reached the final of a 1,000-point WTA tournament. This will be her second appearance in a 1,000-point event semifinal, the other one being last October in Indian Wells, where she lost to eventual champion Paula Badosa.

Progress has been a central theme of Jabeur’s last 12 months. Beyond the Indian Wells semifinal, she made her first Wimbledon quarterfinal and showed how high a ceiling she has. In a world where big-tournament champions often come out of nowhere to win — Krejcikova in Paris, Raducanu in New York — Jabeur displayed a standard of play which could lift her to the top of the sport. Her results were better than they had previously been, but the quality and depth of the tour denied her two elusive milestones: a 1,000-point final and a major semifinal. She has yet to attain either of those goals.

If she wins her upcoming Madrid semifinal, she will check the first box. She would rise in the rankings and conceivably get a more favorable path at Roland Garros, where she can check the second box, a first major semifinal.

Iga Swiatek, the dominant force in women’s tennis now that Ash Barty has retired, endured a 2021 season in which she learned how to absorb the punches thrown by the rest of the tour. The results weren’t great, but Swiatek was consistently making the Round of 16 at majors and giving herself many learning experiences against quality opposition. One of those players was Jabeur, who made a very similar journey, albeit while several years older than her Polish counterpart.

Swiatek translated her learning tour of 2021 into huge results in 2022. Jabeur, like the rest of the tour this year, hasn’t touched the soaring heights Swiatek has reached, but this Madrid Open has the potential to be the floodgate-opening moment when everything begins to click at a higher level for her.

Progress is evident in Ons Jabeur’s game; you can’t wipe out Simona Halep on clay and not be seen as anything other than an in-form player. Yet, for all the progress Jabeur has made, the acute need to maximize this progress remains. New career milestones are close and attainable, and second or third chances to secure them are not guaranteed.

Jabeur has earned a second chance to make a 1,000-point tournament final. Let’s see if she can magnify progress in Madrid.

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