Not long after Wimbledon began this year, it became clear that the greatest obstacle between Ons Jabeur and a first grand slam final was likely to be herself. She arrived in the form of her life and around her in the bottom half of the draw the seeds continued to fall. She ploughed through the field and was soon the prohibitive favourite.
As she moved on, Jabeur had to navigate a series of tricky opponents with uncomfortable playing styles. They forced her to generate all of the pace herself, they presented formidable defences for her to penetrate and threw up copious amounts of slice to handle.
But as she saw off a series of opponents ranked outside the top 30, she was heavily favoured in each round. It has often been uncomfortable, and Jabeur’s stress during certain matches has been plain to see, but she has kept her head to the last. If she is to lift her first grand slam title, Jabeur will have to unpick a completely different style compared with anything she has faced so far and it will be a formidable challenge.
Since Elena Rybakina chose to represent Kazakhstan, finished full-time school and then threw herself into tennis, her talent has been undeniable.
The 23-year-old has established herself as one of the best servers in the world. In six matches here, an enormous 51% of her first serves have gone unreturned and she has won a tournament-leading 77% of first-serve points. Off the ground the 17th seed possesses some of the most destructive strokes in the game. As she stands at 6ft, the challenge for her opponents is to absorb her first strike and exploit her relative lack of athleticism, whether by forcing her to move or lengthening the points.
Rybakina wants rallies over as quickly as possible and on her way through the tournament she has done an excellent job of executing her full-power tennis. It was impressive enough that she turned around an unfavourable first set in the quarter-final against Ajla Tomljanovic, recovering to bulldoze the Australian in three. In Thursday’s semi-final, she stepped out against a former Wimbledon champion, Simona Halep, with all of her experience and played nerveless, pure attacking tennis.
Even though Rybakina is facing a completely different type of opponent in Jabeur, she will approach the final no differently, looking to attack, shorten points and impose herself. She has the game to hit almost every player in the world off the court on her best day, and so even against such an unusual opponent her mind will only be on herself.
The final will also be a completely different task for Jabeur. Rybakina hits harder than any opponent she has faced, so Jabeur will have less time on the baseline than in her earlier matches. Considering how purely Rybakina has struck the ball all fortnight, it will be a big jump in quality compared with her earlier opponents.
The contrast between the two is stark and Jabeur, 27, will bring her deep toolbox of shots and unpredictable patterns in order to disrupt her opponent’s rigid offence however she can. Rybakina will have to reckon with low, skidding bounces as Jabeur peppers her with slices. Jabeur’s drop shots will force Rybakina to be on the move and alert at all times. She will use her variety to search for forehands and bring her own weapons into play.
“She serves really well, so my main goal is to return as much balls as I can, to make her really work hard to win the point,” said Jabeur on Rybakina. “Yeah, [I’ve] played her a couple of times. I know she can hit really hard and hit a lot of winners. I know that my game could really bother her. I really try to focus more on myself, do a lot of slices, try to really make her work hard.”
Against such a great server, the challenge for Jabeur will also be to take care of her own service games. While Jabeur isn’t quite in the supreme serving form she found last year, she continues to serve extremely well for her height. Rybakina has won 86% of service games during her Wimbledon run. Jabeur, who is 5ft 6in, is right behind her with 85%.
The pair have played three times, with Jabeur, the No 3 seed, leading 2-1. It is hard not to feel like the past few months of Jabeur’s career have been building up to this. She won the biggest title of her career at the WTA 1000 event in Madrid, she has reached five finals in her past seven events, and she made up for her first-round loss at the French Open by winning in Berlin. She started this tournament ranked No 2 in the world, the highest ranked African and Arab singles player in history. Still, her supremely talented opponent could easily catch fire.
As they walk on to Centre Court with a slam on the line, the biggest question mark and one of the defining factors in this match will be how both players handle their first grand slam final. Neither player has experienced anything like what they will feel on Saturday afternoon, and even if they return many more times, there is nothing like the first.