In 2001, Tunisian tennis player Selima Sfar made history: she ranked 75th in the world, the only Arab woman to ever break into the top 100, and one of very few Arabs overall to achieve the feat.
Moving to France aged 13, and training under Wimbledon runner-up Nathalie Tauziat, Sfar was a true trailblazer with no predecessor or successor — until Ons Jabeur came along.
The tenacious 24-year-old player, also Tunisian, broke Sfar’s nearly two decade record on January 28 this year. She hit a career high of No 56 and became the highest-ranking Arab woman in tennis, ever.
The year prior, another major moment for Jabeur: she was the first Arab to reach a final — or semi-final — on the WTA tour, at the 2018 Moscow Kremlin Cup.
Sfar had admitted she had mixed feelings about Jabeur’s success, but said the biggest honour was to see another woman go down the path that she paved.
She made their friendship Instagram official, posting a sweaty post-practice selfie together and adding the hashtags #fun, #tunisia and #champion.
Ons admits there is not enough Arab talent coming through, but with the right programme things could change.
“I’m really hoping to see more players from my country and other Arab countries compete and be in at least the world’s top 500,” she told Gulf News in 2017. “For sure, we don’t have the mentality to be professional players in tennis, we don’t have a strategy or a good schedule or programme to practice.
“We need to be professional on and off the court to be in that place. I hope they [Arab tennis federations] are doing a good job, I don’t actually know what they are doing, but I hope they are trying to be one of the best.”
Asked if she would look to help out with Arab player development when she retires, she replied: “Of course, I can see myself doing something in Tunisia. That’s one of my goals to open an academy to help players and I hope I will [have] that chance one day.”
THE PERFECT PARTNER
Ons, who married Karim Kamoun in 2015 after dating for more than two years, also said marriage brought a fresh perception to life and tennis. She said Kamoun, a fencing champ, chips in with timely advice on the physical and mental side.
“Having good people around you really helps a lot in making progress,” she told Gulf News.
“My husband is an athlete and he is in a position to help, whether mentally or in the physical aspects of the game. I am much fitter this year as I am practicing now and it is no secret,” she added.
A GROWING FLAME
21-year-old Egyptian Sandra Samir is climbing up the ranks, too. She reached a career high of No 361 in October of last year, and holds seven singles and six doubles titles on the ITF Women’s Circuit. Not only is she following in Sfar and Jabeur’s footsteps, but also behind countryman Esmail Al Shafei, the only Egyptian tennis player, man or woman, to ever break into the top 100.
Arab tennis players who broke into the top 100
Last month, Ons Jabeur joined a small but growing list of Arabs
Esmail Al Shafei (Egypt)
Career high: No 36 on April 8, 1975
Egypt’s Esmail Al Shafei turned professional in 1968 and retired in 1983. He was one of only four players to ever beat tennis legend Bjorn Borg at Wimbledon. Al Shafei defeated the Swede to make it to the quarter-finals of the championship in 1974. Al Shafei is now 71. He has encouraged Arab countries to set up smaller tournaments in order to produce and grow more qualified tennis players from the region.
Selima Sfar (Tunisia)
Career high: No 75 on July 16, 2001
Selima Sfar was the only Arab woman tennis player to ever break into the top 100, up until Ons Jabeur broke her record earlier this year. Sfar was a Tunisian trailblazer, paving the way for future generations by turning professional in 1999. She won 11 singles tournaments, 20 doubles tournaments, and played at two Summer Olympics before setting down her racquet in 2011.
Karim Alami (Morocco)
Career high: No 25 on February 21, 2000
Karim Alami, who turned professional in 1990, competed on behalf of Morocco at the 1992 Summer Olympics in Barcelona and was defeated in the first round by his Swiss rival Marc Rosset. Alami reached the quarter finals eight years later at the 2000 Sumer Olympics in Sydney. He retired in 2002.
Hicham Arazi (Morocco)
Career high: No 22 on November 5, 2001
Hicham Arazi earned himself several nicknames on the court, from The Moroccan Magician to The Moroccan McEnroe. The latter, a reference to the perennially short-tempered American tennis player, John McEnroe, was more a nod to Arazi’s talent than his meltdowns. Despite only winning one singles title during his career, Arazi defeated a roster of World No 1 players and Grand Slam champions, from Roger Federer to Andre Agassi. He retired in 2007.
Younes Al Aynaoui (Morocco)
Career high: No 14 on March 11, 2003
Younes Al Aynaoui’s most memorable career moment happened in 2003: an epic 83-game match against America’s Andy Roddick at the Australian Open. The showdown went on for a whopping five hours; at the time, it included the longest fifth set in Grand Slam history. Though Roddick won in the end, Al Aynaoui’s stamina was especially notable due to the fact that he was 31, while Roddick was 20. El Aynaoui is widely recognised as one of the best Arab players of all time, and received a gold medal to recognise his sporting achievements from Moroccan ruler King Mohammad VI.
Malek Jaziri (Tunisia)
Career high: No 42 on January 7, 2019
Malek Jaziri, 35, is still going strong on the tennis court. In fact, it was just this year that he reached his career high of 42. Jaziri last year achieved his first win against a Top 10 player, when he defeated then World No 4 Grigor Dimitrov at the Dubai Duty Free Tennis Championships and reached the semi-finals of the tournament.