When Thursday afternoon began, the Wimbledon women’s singles final held the possibility of featuring a new mother from Ukraine facing a player seeking to become the first woman from an Arab country to win a Grand Slam singles title, or her facing a Belarusian in a match. that would overflow with wartime tension.

When it was over, Ukraine’s Elina Svitolina was gone, but Ons Jabeur’s dream lived on after her thrilling comeback win over Belarus’ Aryna Sabalenka. Sabalenka would have become world No. 1 with a win on hostile Center Court, but instead, Jabeur, the wily and athletic Tunisian, showed her skills and plenty of grit in a 6-7 (5), 6-4, 6. -3 win.

For a set and a half, Sabalenka overwhelmed Jabeur, and she got within two games of advancing to the final and taking the top ranking. But down a set and up 4-2 in the second, Jabeur dug in. She found a way to manage Sabalenka’s racket serves, took advantage of an increasingly irritable opponent and won 10 of the next 13 games to set up a date in Saturday’s final. against an unlikely opponent, Marketa Vondrousova of the Czech Republic, who earlier in the day ended Svitolina’s improbable run in straight sets, 6-3, 6-3.

“A crazy match,” said Jabeur, a pioneering figure for the Arab world. “One more match to go.”

In Vondrousova, Jabeur will face an opponent with a deceptively slim resume but a penchant for ruining sentimental stories. At the 2021 Tokyo Olympics, Vondrousova eliminated Naomi Osaka, the national hero and international star who lit the Olympic cauldron at the opening ceremony, en route to winning a silver medal.

Against Svitolina, she displayed all the best skills that make up her varied game – wristy, rolling forehands; to drop shots; and a thirst to move to the net to finish points at every opportunity. Being left handed also helped. It generally forces opponents to adapt to different spins than they normally face and to change the direction of their attack in their efforts to get the ball onto her backhand.

But it’s safe to say that not many people considered Vondrousova a potential finalist when this tournament started two weeks ago. A year ago, at Wimbledon, she was in a cast, recovering from wrist surgery and watching her friend and doubles partner, Miriam Kolodziejova, in the singles qualifying tournament before spending a week as a tourist in London.

More surprisingly, Vondrousova, 24, has never made it past the second round at Wimbledon in four tries. She never fancied herself as a grass-court player, although her game, which has some pop when she needs it but doesn’t rely on power, bears a striking resemblance to that of Jabeur, who also made last year’s final.

“I feel like we’re the same in some things,” Vondrousova said of Jabeur. “We play drop shots. We’re playing a slice.”

And now she plays Jabeur.

When Wimbledon started, there was a lot of talk about the women’s game having a new Big Three in Sabalenka, Elena Rybakina and Iga Swiatek, the winners of the last four Grand Slam tournaments. All three are tall and powerful, and they often blow their opponents off the court.

The last two women standing, however, are Vondrousova and Jabeur, who defeated Rybakina on Wednesday before toppling Sabalenka. Jabeur turned Thursday’s match late in the second set with two breaks of Sabalenka’s serve when she desperately needed them. In a tie to even the match, Jabeur knocked back down the line of Sabalenka’s second serve and jogged to her chair with her finger to her ear, as if the crowd could shout louder for her. Then she took that finger and waved it in the air, while Sabalenka walked closer and closer to her.

Jabeur, 28, came on a winning streak in this tournament last year, and she received a hero’s welcome at the airport when she returned to Tunisia. She is the highest-ranked African or Arab player, male or female, in tennis history, and she has made no secret that a Wimbledon title is her dream.

Last year, a photo of the women’s singles trophy was the background of her phone screen. She said there was a trophy on that display again this year, but she didn’t publicly say which one.

Sports psychologists may debate whether Jabeur focuses too much on results rather than the process and accepts that anything can happen on any given day, but good things will come from hard work and dedication.

Jabeur, whose nickname is the Minister of Happiness because her almost always cheerful demeanor and upbeat outlook can feel unique in an era when so many players struggle with their mental health, said looking at a trophy works for her.

“I like to know exactly what I want,” she said. “I know if I want that thing bad enough, I’ll get it.”

That, giving it her all and playing with a lot of emotion and joy, she said, is what keeps her motivated.

“It comes with pressure, yes, I understand that, but it’s something I want so much,” she said of the trophy picture. “I believe I can do it as long as I give everything I can, as long as I know where I’m going. I think it will help me a lot.”

The crowd probably will too. The fans were with her from the first moments on Thursday, and especially against Sabalenka, who, like all Russians and Belarusians, was banned from playing Wimbledon last year because of her country’s support for the Russian invasion of Ukraine. In recent days, as Sabalenka crept closer to the final, concerns have been raised about whether Catherine, Princess of Wales, who traditionally presents the trophy to the singles winner, would be forced to give it to Sabalenka.

Jabeur saved the monarchy from that uncomfortable result. She knocked off four Grand Slam winners en route to the final, surviving one of the toughest draws in the tournament and three three-set matches.

Now she will try to win one more match and the most important title in the sport against a player who has beaten her twice this year.

“I’m going for revenge,” she said with a smile.

Vondrousova is one of an array of Czech talents. Last month, Karolina Muchova, 26, a friend of Vondrousova, fell two games short of winning the French Open. The country of 10.7 million people has eight women in the top 50.

Vondrousova is seventh among them at 42. She was ranked No. 1 in the world as a junior and reached the French Open final in 2019, but has not made a Grand Slam quarterfinal since. She might have been the longest shot among them to make the final.

Early on she beat two solid players, Veronika Kudermetova and Donna Vekic, who had success on grass. After that she thought she might be able to have some success, but still, the final?

“It’s really crazy that this is happening,” she said. “But I think anything can happen in tennis.”

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