It is an extremely rare event, not to say unique in the annals of Roland-Garros. On June 3, 2011, a “simple” semi-final of the junior girls tournament took place on the Suzanne-Lenglen court at the Porte d’Auteuil stadium. This shows to what extent the poster already aroused the attraction of the public and the media. The poster in question? You guessed it: Caroline Garcia against Ons Jabeur.
Eight days earlier, the 17-year-old Frenchwoman, seeded No. 3 in this junior tournament, had sparked national – and even international – hysteria by leading 6-3, 4-1 in the second round of the main draw against Maria Sharapova. As for the Tunisian, she had made a name for herself a year earlier when she played in the final of this same junior tournament, at the age of 15, against Elina Svitolina. She was finally going to give herself a new chance (which she will materialize against Monica Puig) by winning this shock semi-final against the French, beaten 6-2, 1-6, 6-2.
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The match point, an astonishing return from a forehand shot that crashed into the service box, will remain quite symbolic of the misfortunes of “Caro” at the time against this Jabeur who had just beaten her for the fourth time at the juniors, after three first successes a year earlier at Roland-Garros (already), at Wimbledon, then at the US Open.
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“It’s clear that she deprived me of some Grand Slam titles in the juniorsCaroline smiles today at a press conference. She already had this very particular style of play, with a lot of drop shots, slices, variations… It was very tricky, especially since no one else played like that. It has always been a challenge for me to face him in the juniors. And among seniors too, for that matter.”
On the big circuit, Ons has indeed compiled two additional victories against the French, in the 1st round of the US Open 2019 (already, there again), 7-6, 6-2 by saving two 1st set balls, and in the 2nd round of the Australian Open 2020 (1-6, 6-2, 6-3). At the time, she was on her way to her first Grand Slam quarter-final. And she had been trained for two years by a certain Bertrand Perret, former coach (moreover) of Paul-Henri Mathieu and Peng Shuai, who is none other today than that of Caroline Garcia, since the end of 2021. One main pillars of its reconstruction and its return to grace, too.
We don’t know to what extent, but having a former coach from the “opposite camp” by her side can only be a plus for Caroline Garcia when challenging the one who is similar, whether we want it or not, to a form of pet peeve. Note that she does not necessarily need it: in the round of 16, she had never beaten Alison Riske either, nor had she had a victory against Coco Gauff before knocking her out in the quarters. The past is the past: today, Caroline Garcia is simply not the same player.
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“I know that she is complicated to play, that she is developing a very aggressive tennisobviously noted Ons Jabeur, who is now trained by Issam Jellali, with her husband Karim Kamoun as a physical trainer and a luxury consultant on this US Open, the former world No. 1 Arantxa Sanchez, victorious in the US Open in 1994, his year of birth. I imagine it will be the one of us who can impose her game. I hope it will be me.”
A fund of play which, since this time of the juniors, has not fundamentally changed on the side of Ons Jabeur, one of the rare players – since the retirement of Ashleigh Barty – to perfectly master the backhand slice , a blow that could turn out to be a formidable shield against the missiles of the Frenchwoman. But the Tunisian, today, is not just a ball trickster. She is also capable of sending the heavy and serving the lead, like these 11 successful aces in the quarterfinals against Veronika Kudermetova.
Since we are in the statistics, two however seem particularly important: on the whole of the tournament (players eliminated included), Caroline Garcia presents the 4th best percentage of points behind her first serve (77%). Ons Jabeur has the 4th highest number of points won behind the second opposing ball (89 in all). No need to look very far for what will undoubtedly be one of the main keys to this opposition of styles: the first ball of the Frenchwoman, who will have to hit at the right time as she had been able to do against Gauff, failing to present a very high percentage.
Destinies crossed in 2022
Anyway, the game plan of the Lyonnaise, resolutely aggressive and hard-hitting, is known in advance. That of Jabeur could be more complex to anticipate. The Tunisian can either try to attack before being attacked, or on the contrary break the rhythm to make the exchanges last as long as possible, knowing that the longer the rallies last, the more they should be to her advantage. Her range of moves is such that she can do anything. Which can also sometimes backfire.
This is also one of the main points in common between the two young women: in radically different styles, the two, both driven and hampered by the incredible range of possibilities offered to them by their game, have known a lot of difficulties in defining the right way to play. “Everything is clear now in my head but it has not always been the case, far from itwas pleased to repeat the Frenchwoman in New York. “Before, I knew I had weapons in my game, but I just didn’t know how to set them up”said the Tunisian as an echo. Everything “clicked” all of a sudden, at the end of 2019″. Here, here: with Bertrand Perret by his side…
Before meeting up in this enticing semi-final, Ons Jabeur and Caroline Garcia will also have had a very different trajectory in 2022. While the Frenchwoman was healing her wounds and rebuilding herself during the first half of the season, the Tunisian was back in health with titles in Madrid and Berlin, as well as finals in Charleston, Rome and of course Wimbledon, all crowned with a rise to second place in the world, which she will undoubtedly find again if she reaches the final here. And then, their shape curves crossed in the heart of the summer, moment from which “Caro” resumed its irresistible flight, while Ons got stuck in a disappointing North American tour.
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All in all, the two players, both 28 years old (even if Jabeur, who is a year younger, has just had them, while Garcia will be 29 in October), are already listed already among the hottest of the season. The Tunisian has won 43 victories in 2022 (2nd best total behind Iga Swiatek), including 15 in three sets (record); the French, 38, including 14 in three sets. The first lost only one set in this US Open, the second, none. Confidence level, difficult to do better. Talent level too.
And then there is also history to mark, again and again. Ons Jabeur continued to write her own by becoming the first African (and Arab) player to qualify for the semi-finals, the goal she had – surprisingly – set herself at the start of her fortnight. Which doesn’t mean she can’t see further…. As for Garcia, she has her sights set on becoming only the second Frenchwoman to reach the final of the US Open after Mary Pierce in 2005. But she too sees further, of course: becoming the first Frenchwoman of all the times to win the American Grand Slam…
All these rather dizzying references, Ons Jabeur and Caroline Garcia probably did not even dream of them when they faced each other for the first time, during this junior Roland-Garros, in 2010. Twelve years later, after many Ordeals crossed and mountains raised, here are their destinies reunited again, in the most beautiful of arenas, for the most beautiful of challenges.
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