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Ons Jabeur’s Madrid title didn’t come easily, which is appropriate

Ons Jabeur’s first WTA 1,000-point championship was anything but a walk in the park.

A tense, razor’s-edge first set was followed by a lull — and some physical discomfort — in the second set. With the steady and consistent Jessica Pegula on the other side of the net, the third set offered no likely advantage or clear prospect of victory. Jabeur had to reset the dial and start from scratch after getting torched in a largely non-competitive second set.

Both women in the Madrid final are acomplished, credentialed tennis players. Though neither woman owns a major semifinal or final, both have established themselves on tour in recent years with solid results. Pegula has made the quarterfinals at 1,000-point tournaments on a consistent basis over the past year. Jabeur made the Wimbledon quarterfinals last year, beating Garbine Muguruza and Iga Swiatek along the way. Both players have steadily improved and consolidated the gains they have made. This is why they were the only two seeded players to make the Madrid quarterfinals. This is why they met in the final. They are better than most of their tour peers for a reason.

Yet, being better than most of the tour and winning big titles are often two different realities. Being a quarterfinal-level tournament player is nothing to sneeze at, but it’s not the same thing as being a true heavyweight in the sport. Winning championships confers that status upon players. After Ash Barty retired, Iga Swiatek quickly took the baton from the Australian, becoming a dominant World No. 1 player in her own right. When Swiatek is in a tournament, everyone else instantly becomes a less imposing title threat. The obvious opportunity of Madrid 2022 was that Swiatek wasn’t there. This was an up-for-grabs title, which magnified the meaning — and pressure — of Saturday’s final.

Jabeur and Pegula both felt this heavy weight on their shoulders.

Jabeur entered the third set not knowing where she stood.

The fact that Jabeur restored order and regrouped so wonderfully in that final set made this championship more satisfying than if she had blitzed Pegula in one hour (much as she crushed Ekaterina Alexandrova in a very quick and easy semifinal). The struggles which defined Saturday’s final mirrored the difficulty of Jabeur’s climb to the top 10. It paralleled the slow but steady progress she made on tour, and the tough wins she scratched out last year against Swiatek and other elite players.

Swiatek’s 2020 Roland Garros and Emma Raducanu’s 2021 U.S. Open were magical fortnights in which they couldn’t miss. Everything went right. All facets of their games snapped into place.

Jabeur had that kind of Madrid journey for most of her 10-day stay in Spain, but not in Saturday’s final. This match contained the difficulties which reminded her how hard it was to finally reach the top 10 and the upper tiers of her sport. Winning this final with pronounced difficulty enabled the tennis world to see — in ways it might not have fully appreciated before — just how determined a competitor and how adept a problem solver Ons Jabeur is.

The history, the milestones, the achievements — everyone knows about them. The perseverance which led to those laurels is the deeper and more resonant part of the Ons Jabeur story in Madrid.

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