Exclusive: My story proves you can make it big from any country, says Arab icon Ons Jabeur

The first Arab player to reach a Grand Slam final, Jabeur spoke to Khaleej Times ahead of her first match at the Australian Open

by

Rituraj Borkakoty

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Tunisian star Ons Jabeur is proud of becoming a symbol of Arab aspirations in sports. — AFP
Tunisian star Ons Jabeur is proud of becoming a symbol of Arab aspirations in sports. — AFP

Published: Mon 15 Jan 2024, 12:15 AM

Last updated: Tue 16 Jan 2024, 10:41 AM

At a time when big hitters are calling the shots in tennis, Ons Jabeur is a throwback to a bygone era when deft touches and exquisite shot-making earned points and plaudits.

But it’s on the back of such a languid style of play that this Tunisian player has become a trailblazer, rewriting the history books for Arab and African tennis in the last three years.

The first player from the region to reach a Grand Slam final (she has featured in three Slam finals), Jabeur’s story proves that you can be successful in an elite sport like tennis regardless of your ethnic and cultural background.

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Many young Arab sportspersons, including Reema Juffali, the first female racing driver from Saudi Arabia, now draw inspiration from Jabeur’s epoch-making journey from the Tunisian coastal town of Sousse to the upper echelons of tennis.

Jabeur, 29, says she is very proud of becoming a symbol of Arab aspirations in sports.

“It's definitely my honour, it’s something that was missing a bit in our region,” Jabeur told the Khaleej Times over Zoom ahead of her first match at the Australian Open.

(Watch the full interview below)

“We see different players, but not from the same region or from the same country. The athletes would question, you know, that we don’t have the same conditions and facilities, that’s why the other players (from Europe, the US, Australia) made it.

“So, my story, I think, most people know that I never practised in Europe when I was young, I always played in Tunisia, and that proves that you can make it even if you are from any country.

“It’s about believing in yourself and that’s always the message I try to send and hopefully I can inspire more and more athletes from Africa, the Middle East, Tunisia, every country.”

What has changed?

It was not until the 2017-2018 season that Jabeur broke into the top 100 in women’s singles world rankings.

Her ranking was 56 when she played the 2019 Dubai Duty Free Tennis Championships, a tournament she was happy to play on merit that year instead of joining on a wild card for being an Arab player.

It’s only in the post-Covid era that Jabeur began to display her full range of skills and a big match temperament, winning her first WTA 1000 title, making three Grand Slam finals and even reaching the number two position in world rankings.

Jabeur revealed the key to the amazing transformation from a middle-ranking player to a Grand Slam contender.

“A lot of things (have changed), it’s not just one thing obviously,” she said.

“I know myself better on the court, I am trying to work on specific things that allow me personally to be a better player on the court. I have learned a lot from the past years, I was losing in the first rounds. But now I feel much better on the court, I feel more comfortable, I feel like the process is helping me a lot.”

That process has yielded great results in the last three years after Issam Jellali, a former Tunisian player, joined her team as coach.

“I have a great team behind me, they have been helping me for a long time,” she said.

“I think the hard work I have put in every day, it’s showing now. Being more and more consistent, helped me also be the player I am today.”

The final hurdle

In ‘Ons Jabeur: This Is Me,’ the recently released documentary on her life, the Tunisian has revealed it’s her life’s mission to win a Grand Slam after her dreams of scaling the greatest peak of her career were dashed by the defeat to Marketa Vondrousova in last year’s Wimbledon final, her third straight defeat in a Major final.

A huge Real Madrid fan who loves watching the high-octane ‘Clasicos’, Jabeur would embrace a new strategy to cope with the pressure of a Grand Slam final if she makes it to a title decider again this year.

“I am definitely learning a lot from the Grand Slam experience, especially the finals. There are a lot of things that could click anytime, you know. I do believe, it’s not just one thing, but a lot of things I am working on right now,” she said.

“I will try to find more joy on the court, less pressure during the finals, will try to play the final like a semifinal or a quarterfinal. It’s definitely something I am working on, mentally and physically, a lot of technical stuff that I am working on as well.

“I feel like I am becoming a more confident player on the court, and that would definitely help me get over this (hurdle) in the Grand Slam finals.”

Learning from the greats

In the world of tennis, there are stories of true grit that Jabeur can take inspiration from as she continues her quest for the biggest trophy of her life at the Australian Open this week.

The likes of Ivan Lendl, Andy Murray and Kim Clijsters lost their first four Grand Slam finals before winning their first.

Lendl eventually ended his career as an all-time great with eight Slams, while Murray became the most formidable player outside of the Big Three (Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic) in the golden era of tennis, winning three Grand Slams and writing his name in the history books as the only player to have won two Olympic singles gold medals.

“Definitely, honoured to be part of that list. They are amazing champions, and I think they have done a lot,” Jabeur said. “Every player has his or her own process, I am definitely not giving up. It’s not part of my nature, so I wanna keep going and it (a Grand Slam win) is something that I want to do, not just for myself, but also for my region and for my country.”

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