To see Ons Jabeur play tennis is to think deeply about how the game is taught. Or do we mean learned?

How it goes in tennis is that there is often a prevailing style that dictates the norm. Decades ago, there was a heavy emphasis on serve and volley. Contemporary tennis matches are mostly won from the baseline: flat missiles, aided by slight changes in topspin.

That’s how Anett Kontaveit, Jabeur’s opponent today in the quarterfinals of the BNP Paribas Open, has gotten this far, the powerful Estonian’s desert run highlighted by a win over defending champion Bianca Andreescu. Headed into this encounter, the 20th-ranked Kontaveit had won 16 of her last 17 matches, taking titles in Cleveland and Ostrava.

The last time these two had played one another, in Cincinnati this past August, Jabeur had barely won, 7-5 in the third. “It’s never easy to play her,” said Jabeur.

This one was easier. Jabeur required only two sets to win it, 7-5, 6-3. Per usual, Jabeur earned the victory with her trademark smorgasbord of drop shots and slices, as well as powerful drives and superb court coverage. “Honestly a great match, great fight,” said Jabeur. “Always tough to play against Anett. I tried to play my game little bit, but she knows me so well. It was kind of tough to kind of execute those dropshots. I'm pretty glad that I stayed calm when I needed to be. It was very stressful at the end. But I'm glad that I got the win and looking forward to play.”

Advertising

The win made Jabeur the first Arab to crack the top ten.

The win made Jabeur the first Arab to crack the top ten.

The win made Jabeur the first Arab to crack the top ten. “Top ten I know is the beginning,” said Jabeur. “I know I deserve this place from a long time since I was playing well. But I want to prove that I deserve to be here, I deserve to be one of the top ten players.”

Dominant as Jabeaur was in most rallies, this match featured seven service breaks and its share of plot twists. In the first set, Jabeur served at 4-1 and 5-4, but was broken each time. Meanwhile, Kontaveit struggled to keep the ball in the court, her flat drives constantly flying wide or long, often extremely early in a great many rallies. Unable to find a comfortable cruising speed, Kontaveit largely competed at the mercy of Jabeur. Serving at 3-all, she dropped her serve at love, everything from a Jabeur slice backhand to a sharp crosscourt forehand extracting the errors that generated the decisive service break. Two games later, Kontaveit served at 3-5 and went down 15-40. After fighting off one match point, Kontaveit at 30-40 was flummoxed by Jabeur’s movement, at last attempting a shot she barely knows, a slice backhand, that fluttered into the net.

Jabeur’s eclectic approach makes her a tennis outlier. Must that be the case? What goes on in the development of tennis players that turns Jabeur into a rarity? Many a tennis expert has told me that Jabeur’s kind of touch and imagination cannot be taught. Can’t be taught or won’t be taught? Why does Kontaveit’s form on the slice backhand look worse than a great many recreational players? What keeps a developing player from at least experimenting with a serve-volley on at least a few points? As Kontaveit struggled, I wondered if she’d ever deeply acquainted herself with this tactical concept: find another way to lose. Then again, had she ever been taught other ways?

I also wondered how many tennis teachers have read all-time great Bill Tilden’s classic book, Match Play and the Spin of the Ball. As Tilden wrote decades ago, “Most tennis players look upon the ball that is used as merely something to hit.” He proposed another view: “Every ball has an outside and inside edge every time it comes to you . . . the edge you hit determines the curve and spin of the ball on your return.” Tilden went on to offer a textured view of tennis, detailing how variations in spin, height, speed and direction should all be part of a player’s portfolio, all in support of a strategic fundamental: “Never give your opponent a shot he likes to play if you can avoid it.”

Jabeur understands and applies Tilden’s ideas as well as anyone in tennis. One hopes a great many players, coaches and parents become inspired by Jabeur – from the hard work she’s put in to reach the top ten, to the playing style that generates so much joy among fans and so much misery for her opponents. As Kontaveit noted, “It definitely wasn’t my day . . . her variations wrong-footed me a lot of times and I lost my rhythm.” But surely, disruption is the name of the game in any sport – to apply pressure to the point where the opponent feels uncomfortable, begins to try for more and makes even more mistakes.

Here again from Tilden: “Nothing destroys a man’s confidence, breaks up his game and ruins his fighting spirit like errors. The more shots he misses, the more he worries, and ultimately, the worse he plays. That is why so many players are said to be ‘off their game’ against me. I set out to put them ‘off their game.’”