Three months ago, during the height of a fierce Ohioan summer, the Western & Southern Open in Cincinnati opened with a brutal contest in the women’s draw. Ons Jabeur and Anett Kontaveit, two unseeded, high-class players drew each other in the first round and then for more than two hours they battled into the night. The match was eventually decided by minuscule details, Jabeur winning 6-2, 4-6, 7-5.
At the time nobody could have imagined how the rest of the season would unfold for them. While the Tunisian was in the midst of a breakthrough summer and sat in the final spot in the race to the WTA Finals in Guadalajara, the year-end tournament held between the top eight players, Kontaveit’s season had become stagnant. Her defeat against Jabeur was her fifth consecutive loss. She was 27th in the race, almost 1,000 points behind Jabeur. Her unsatisfactory form had led her to a new coaching appointment that week, the former player Dmitry Tursunov.
A week later she went to Cleveland and defeated five lower-ranked players to win her second WTA title. Instead of a displeasing end to the season, that victory began one of the most abrupt, unforeseen late-season turnarounds in recent memory. As summer faded, Kontaveit played with increasing authority, commanding the important points as results quickly fell her way.
She won her second title of 2021 in Ostrava, demolishing three top-15 players in a row. Then she went to Moscow and won there, too, destroying Garbiñe Muguruza, the world No 5, 6-1, 6-1 en route. In Romania she outclassed Simona Halep 6-3, 6-2 in the final of the former No 1’s home tournament, leapfrogging Jabeur to qualify for the WTA Finals, which begin on Wednesday, in the process.
Kontaveit has risen from 28th in the WTA rankings at the end of July to eighth, has won four titles in her past six completed tournaments and compiled a monstrous win-loss record of 26-2 since that defeat against Jabeur in August. She is the in-form player.
Although the abruptness of her success is surprising, Kontaveit’s ability has been clear over the past four years she has spent as a top‑30 player. She is a premier shotmaker who takes the ball daringly early and is armed with one of the sweetest, most destructive backhands in the game. She hails from Estonia, one of the smallest countries in Europe with a population of 1.3 million. Her biggest obstacle was simple: when she faced the big players in the biggest tournaments they could count on her faltering or playing scared in the most important moments.
She offers no magical reason for her transformation, except that she is enjoying her tennis more, working consistently and taking each challenge as it comes. Her run underlines that success comes at different times for everyone and that, with discipline, patience and sufficient work, just one positive result and the confidence that comes with it can shift a player’s entire trajectory.
A few months before Kontaveit made her name as a junior in 2011, winning the prestigious Orange Bowl just before her 16th birthday, Jabeur became the first Arab girl to win a junior grand slam tournament, at the French Open. While some, like Emma Raducanu, can instantly break through, their decade-long trajectories show how many lessons, losses, slumps and small nuggets of progress it can take to reach the top stages.
Few players can step on to any court around the world as an unknown and leave with the crowd chanting their name but such is the force of her varied, pure style of play, this is a constant feature of Jabeur’s career. She peppers opponents with drop shots, net forays, nuclear forehands and just about every other shot in the book. Like Kontaveit she has had to learn how to produce in the pressure moments but, additionally, having so many options can often be a menace. Jabeur has slowly learned how to harness her elaborate style and with every year she has grown.
The fruits of Jabeur’s labour have been clear throughout another season of blazing her trail around the world. During the grasscourt season, she became the first Arab woman to win a WTA tour title. She followed her top-20 debut in August, shortly after reaching the Wimbledon quarter-final, by becoming the first Arab and north African tennis player, man or woman, to reach the top 10. Her success is all the more fulfilling because it has been achieved in her own way. She is accompanied by a Tunisian coach, Issam Jellali. She has thrived by refining her own unique, creative style instead of neutering it, as other coaches have suggested in the past, to suit the modern game. Tunis is still her official residence.
In the end Jabeur’s form did not fade at all. She reached a final in Chicago and the semi-finals of Indian Wells but as Kontaveit surged Jabeur picked up an injury and was unable to compete in her final two events. After Kontaveit passed her for the final spot in Mexico, she was the first to congratulate the Estonian, whom she has known since their junior years. Despite coming from a region that is barely represented at the top of tennis, she is one of the most sporting, social and popular players in the locker room.
For both players the lesson from their success is that patience is everything. While Kontaveit has been rewarded with her first WTA Finals appearance, Jabeur should take solace in the steadiness of her own rise and the certainty that, if she continues on the same path, there is so much more to accomplish.