The favourite for Wimbledon, but not a Wimbledon favourite

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As with other players from Russia and Belarus, Sabalenka was banned from last year’s Wimbledon. “I was really sad that I couldn’t play here last year. But at the same time I was thinking that, okay, it’s a good time to reset and start everything over again.

“Before the grass season [last year] I didn’t play my best tennis. I was struggling a lot with my serve, with these emotions, with a lot of stuff. I just took that time as a good preparation… and everything started working better.

“So I think in those three or four weeks I did really good work, and it helped me at the US Open. Then I started believing in myself more, I started playing better, I started feeling better on court, emotionally I started feeling better.

“I think that period gave me so much belief in myself. I was very sad but at the same time I was like, okay, this is probably something I really needed.”

Tunisia’s Ons Jabuer is her opponent in Thursday’s semi-final, a player who should hold few surprises. “We practiced here before Wimbledon. I felt she’s going to do well here, because she played unbelievable tennis on the practice court. I know it’s different than in matches but she was able to bring this level to matches. She’s a great player. We always had tough battles against each other, very close matches.

“She has really good touch. Especially on the grass court, all her slices, dropshots work really well here on grass court. I feel like mentally she’s really strong. She’s making history, I think this is the biggest motivation for her. That’s why she’s really doing well this season, and especially here at Wimbledon. So, yeah, I think her game is really, really challenging to play against.”

This win makes Sabalenka the first female player since Serena Williams in 2016 to reach the semi-finals of Wimbledon, the French and Australian Opens in the same year. A win here would make her world number one for the first time, at 25 years old. “I feel like I’m one of the best. There are other great players.”

Asked if she was more motivated by reaching the final or taking the top spot in the rankings she said, with a smile: ”To be honest, I want both. But I’m trying to focus on myself because I know if I’ll start thinking about all this stuff, I’m going to lose my focus on court, my game. So I’m trying to focus on myself right now and make sure that every time I’m on the court I bring my best tennis. Then later on we’ll see if I’m ready to become world No. 1 or if I’m ready to play another final.”

Jabeur is her final hurdle before a first Wimbledon final but on this evidence Sabalenka has little to fear from anyone. She may have another struggle for a crowd’s affection if she faces one potential final opponent though, Ukrainian Elina Svitolina.

Ons Jabeur continues vengeance tour – with Sabalenka now in her sights

By Molly McElwee

Twelve months on from losing the Wimbledon final to Elena Rybakina, Ons Jabeur has still not watched it back. Not even as preparation for their rematch in the quarterfinal this time around.

She will have no trouble reliving Wednesday’s win. Jabeur recovered from a one-set deficit to score a comeback 6-7 6-4 6-1 victory over the reigning champion in a memorable act of sweet revenge on Centre Court. “I can watch today’s match,” Jabeur said with a smile. “That’s okay. But not last year. It’s too difficult.”

In 2022 Jabeur was the higher ranked player, as the third seed, and she won the first set against Rybakina. But it meant nothing as she still had to hold back tears during the trophy ceremony as the runner up.

Ahead of that final, Jabeur told reporters that she had the Venus Rosewater Dish set as her screensaver on her phone, trying to manifest her way to the title. Perhaps, she has admitted since, she might have wanted it a little too much.

This time she was determined to be disciplined in her endeavour to get past Rybakina’s towering figure, and delivered one of the finest performances of her career.

When stood in the clubhouse, behind the screen waiting to go onto Centre Court, for a moment Jabeur’s sour memories rushed back. But she wanted to write a different story this time – in every sense.

“When we entered the court, I felt a similar feeling of playing same match against her,” Jabeur, 28, said, before adding with a laugh: “But I made sure I changed seats this time. I went for the other seat that she won last year. Maybe it’s the seat that made me win today.”

The superstitious mindset did not guarantee her a good start. Despite having a set point, she lost the opener in a tiebreak. The difference to last year, she said afterwards, was that she did not panic. She had a few terse words for her box (“I kept yelling at my coach saying you told me to play like this, look what’s happening”) but unlike last year, kept her belief in their game plan.

She had anticipated that she might “try to even do things that I might not like on the court” in order to win. That meant fewer of the flowery shots that endear her to crowds. She still flew through the air to hit backhand volleys and caught out Rybakina with a drop shot-lob combination too, but chose her moments more wisely, and was not afraid to match 24-year-old Rybakina’s intensity in baseline rallies.

She also benefited from Rybakina’s serve accuracy not being at its best, often landing returns deep into the corner of the court, sending the third seed scrambling.

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