Dubai: Ons Jabeur feels she has an obligation and a duty at least towards tennis when she reflects on what she’s got to do to ramp things up for the region.
The highest-ranked player Arab ever in the history of women’s tennis, Jabeur also became the first Arab woman to reach the quarter-finals of a Grand Slam when she made it to the last eight in the Australian Open.
The 26-year-old Tunisian — currently coached by UAE-based former Davis Cup player Issam Jellali and long-time trainer Bertrand Perret — is right now peaked at No. 31 on the WTA Tour Rankings with a win percentage of 62.3. However, despite collecting 11 titles on the ITF Tour, the Tunisian is yet to win a single crown on the WTA Tour.
“Yes, I would definitely like to see many other players from the region at the top of women’s tennis. I like to inspire others, and seeing more Arab women would give me tremendous joy,” Jabeur told media at the Abu Dhabi WTA Women’s Tennis Open following her Friday’s win in straight sets over Ukrainian qualifier, Kateryna Bondarenko. “My one hope is that there should be another generation that will follow players like and my example of being among the top of the game in women’s tennis. But this new generation ought to be stronger and I would like to help others get there. I believe that there are players in this region who can be up there in the top-10 or top-20 or top-30, and I would do anything to assist and help them out whenever needed.”
As a tennis player, Jabeur started young. Born and brought up in Sousse, 140km from the Tunisian capital, she moved to Tunis and stayed at the Lycee Sportif El Menzah sports academy there when she was just 12.
She then moved forward on to training stints in Belgium and France and that helped Jabeur go on to shatter a multitude of records for Arab tennis.
As a teenager, Jabeur won the 2011 Roland Garros junior title, becoming the first-ever Arab female to lift a Grand Slam singles champion’s trophy and the first Arab to do so since Egypt’s Ismail El Shafei captured the boys’ title at Wimbledon in 1964.
By 2017, she became the first Arab woman to reach a Grand Slam third round — in the ladies’ event this time — when she claimed her maiden top 10 victory in the French Open against Dominika Cibulkova. That helped her better her compatriot Selima Sfar — who had peaked at No. 75 in the world back in 2001 — and who had been the sole female from the region to crack the top-100 before Jabeur came along.
Her transition from the juniors to the women’s circuit was not as smooth as she had hoped. Early success in tennis always comes with its own set of complications and she felt that she lacked the guidance she needed to develop from teen wonder to competitive pro.
“I am very much around and I am convinced that there is loads of talent in this region. We are no different from the rest of the world,” Jabeur said. “We can have young Arab players making it to the top of this sport, but there has to be a of of hard work as well.”
At the moment, Jabeur stands out as the only representative from Africa, and the Arab world, among the best in tennis. And this may well improve when fresh rankings are announced on Monday. Not only is it an astounding achievement and a considerable responsibility, Jabeur also knows that every time she steps on court she is representing more than just herself. “I belong to this region and I feel I ought to do something special,” she said.
Jabeur’s next opponent in Abu Dhabi in Sunday’s Round of 16 will be fourth-seeded Aryna Sabalenka of Belarus. “She is a good player. It is fun to play her. Last time we played, it was a lot of fun and it will be a really nice show and a really great match. Both of us will be hitting winners from both ends. I like how she reacts on court,” Jabeur said.
“I feel really good. I don’t feel any stress. I am happy. I see the results and I feel the results. The most important thing for me right now is to continue on this path. I need to maintain the level, and in my mind I need to work very hard through the season. I think I am ready for all this. The mentality for me this season is to move forward and not look back. I am more than happy to take this step forward and this mentality will help me be where I want to be.”