Ons Jabeur Is Tearing Down Walls For Arab Tennis
In January 2020 Tunisian tennis player Ons Jabeur became the first Arab woman to reach a Grand Slam quarter final when she beat Wang Qiang in the fourth round of the Australian open.
Jabeur lost to the eventual Australian open winner, Sofia Kenin, but not before she jumped to a career high ranking of 45 in the world (as of February 3 2020).
Had this been a fluke run to the quarters of a slam, people might have put it down to the luck of the draw, but Jabeur beat some of world's best players on the way to the last eight. Current British number one Johanna Konta, former world No. 4, Caroline Garcia and former world No. 1 Caroline Wozniacki all fell in her wake.
With Roland Garros, Wimbledon and the US Open all to play, 2020 is going to be a big year for Ons Jabeur.
Ons Jabeur is ready
But first, back to 2018 and a chilly October morning in Beijing, where we find Jabeur at the top of the Great Wall of China.
Her husband, and fitness trainer, Karim Kamoun is snapping photos of her using his fancy camera, with the view from the wall providing a breathtaking backdrop.
They start singing and dancing when Issam Jellali, their friend, and Jabeur’s occasional coach – in the absence of her full-time mentor Bertrand Perret – blasts a Tunisian rap song that’s been on repeat in her camp throughout the week.
A 5:30am wake-up call and some steep ascents en route to the summit of the wall were never going to stop this feel-good team from throwing themselves a party at one of the world’s most iconic locations.
Climbing the rankings
Just three days earlier, Jabeur, ranked 116 at the time, had taken the opening set 6-1 over reigning world No. 1 Simona Halep in the first round of the China Open, one of the biggest events on the WTA calendar. Struggling with a back injury, Halep retired after dropping the first set, handing Jabeur a spot in the second round.
Despite the victory, Jabeur looked upset after the match. She desperately wanted to beat a fully-fit Halep in a proper contest. She cared little for the valuable ranking points that sent her back into the top-100, nor the $41,000 she had just pocketed.
Jabeur had to win two qualifying rounds before making it to the main event in Beijing and she held her nerve in the main draw opener against an injured Halep. But a competitor like her wanted a hard-earned victory.
After all, nothing in her history-making career was achieved any other way.
When she was six years old living in Sousse and dreaming about winning Roland Garros, Jabeur recalls how most people just laughed at her. This young Arab girl had no business drumming up such fantasies, they thought.
A decade later, a teenaged 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, period, to do so since Egypt’s Ismail El Shafei captured the boys’ title at Wimbledon in 1964.
“We don’t have that spirit in Tunisia, that you can be a champion. I guess I was good, I wasn’t listening to anyone,” says Jabeur, now 25 years old and ranked 45 in the world.
“I wasn’t a rich girl, we weren’t a rich family,” she adds. “I remember my mum travelling with me and taking me everywhere in Tunisia to go play matches and I have amazing memories from that. I didn’t want all that time and effort my mum, and my family, put in to go to waste.”
She says that the decision to be away from her family at 12 or 13 was very difficult.
“It was a big decision, it was very hard, but I had to take it, I had to go practice more and more,” says Jabeur. “I’m from Sousse, which is 140km from the capital, so I moved to Tunis and stayed with girls I don’t even know from different sports at this sports academy.”
A few years at the Lycee Sportif El Menzah, as well as stints training in Belgium and France, helped Jabeur go on to shatter a multitude of records for Arab tennis.
In 2017, she became the first Arab woman to reach a Grand Slam third round – in the ladies’ event this time, not juniors – when she claimed her maiden top-10 victory in the French Open against Dominika Cibulkova.
A few weeks after her impromptu dance party atop the Great Wall, Jabeur flew to Moscow, where she became the first Arab to ever reach a final at a WTA tournament, defeating three top-25 players along the way, including former US Open champion Sloane Stephens.
In her runner-up speech during the trophy ceremony, she cracked a few jokes before saying “I love you” in Russian to her husband Kamoun, a Tunisian-Russian fencer who had become her fitness coach midway through the 2017 season.
Her run in Moscow forced the world to take notice, and it made her the highest-ranked Arab woman in tennis history, sailing past her compatriot Selima Sfar, who peaked at 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.
At the moment, Jabeur stands out as the only representative from Africa, and the Arab world, in the WTA top-400. It is both an astounding achievement and a considerable responsibility.
Jabeur knows that every time she steps on court, she is representing more than just herself.
“I’ve always had that since the beginning of my junior days,” says Jabeur. “I’m trying to be humble about it. When I go to Fed Cup and I see some players from African countries how they congratulate me, how so many want to take pictures with me, I see how important I am for African tennis. And when I go to Arab countries I see Arabs how they react to me, and obviously Tunisia as well. Seeing young kids, how I can inspire them, for me it’s not a heavy weight, it’s an unbelievable privilege.”
When she went home to Tunis at the end of her 2018 campaign, Jabeur started to get a better understanding of just how much her accomplishments were being recognised. Tunisian President Beji Caid Essebsi gave her a congratulatory call for making the final in Moscow, she received multiple awards, and was met with quite the fanfare at her preseason training base in Monastir.
But she’s also seen the other side of the coin, knowing that severe scrutiny often accompanies great success. It’s something she’s been subjected to ever since she won the French Open junior crown as a 16-year-old.
“Tennis is not football in Tunisia. I’m trying my best to make it a sport that many people follow,” she admits.
“Since I was young, until now, I have had a goal and I’m going to achieve it. Okay, people say mean things sometimes, but I’m not going to listen to that, I’m going to continue straight forward, and hope for the best.”
Jabeur’s attractive game matches her playful personality. On the court she toys with her opponents, alternating between power-hitting and deft touches. Her dropshot is a work of art and it leaves her rivals awestruck and equally infuriated.
Off court, Jabeur shatters the stereotype that women’s tennis is an ultra-competitive, ice-cold environment. At breakfast at the players’ hotel in Beijing, I see her trading jokes with everyone while she surfs the buffet. In Doha, I spot her messing around with the barista that serves her coffee. In Dubai, she challenges Naomi Osaka’s fitness trainer Abdul Sillah to an arm-wrestling duel, showing off her biceps to the man with upper arms the size of water melons.
“It’s my personality, I say hi to everyone. After all it’s just sport, it’s not a war,” Jabeur says with a smile.
Jabeur’s 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.
“Back in time, I didn’t have a good team behind me,” says Jabeur. “No one could tell me what to do because we come from a country where tennis is not really popular, and fortunately I was able to do that on my own,” she says.
Now she feels she has the right people in her corner, and she travels most of the year with her coach Perret and her husband.
Hiring her husband as her fitness trainer was a bold venture from Jabeur and the couple are the first to admit that it can be tricky at times. They got married when she was just 21 and it was nearly two years before he left his job as a fencing coach in Qatar to join his wife full-time on tour. Kamoun has always been a pillar in her support system, and Jabeur remembers the early days when he used to send her his salary so she could afford the flight to her next tournament.
“At the beginning it was tough, and he knows that,” she says with a coy grin as she glances at Kamoun’s face.
“Because we’re not used to working with each other, and for him to ask me to go to run, it was kind of like an order and I didn’t like it at the beginning. And if he was throwing the medicine ball wrong or something, I would make a scandal for something very small.
“Then after that we got used to it. I think we’re doing a great job. We talked a lot for sure, we fought a lot but after that, I think we got good results.”
When he starts to tell me about the medicine ball story, she sarcastically cuts him off and says with a laugh: “I just talked about it, so listen next time.”
“Oh I’m sorry. You see? This kind of stuff: ‘Listen, be careful, beware…’” Kamoun responds. “But at the end it’s good to work with Ons because she’s a smart athlete.”
“I gave you the opportunity,” she interjects.
“And she gave me the opportunity to work with a WTA ‘professional player’” he repeats, using finger quotes just to tease her.
“Don’t forget the air quotes,” she tells me.
Their banter reminds me of old Arabic comedy plays, many of which Jabeur probably knows by heart (she’s a fan of anything Adel Emam).
Tennis arguably has the most gruelling schedule in all of sport with the season lasting nearly 11 months a year. The amount of travelling required for long stretches of time is a real challenge but thankfully for Jabeur, she now has her husband with her on the road.
“We try to adapt to any other culture. We like to travel so for us it’s interesting to see how people react to us when they hear where we’re from,” she says. “I like the way how people don’t know about our country but then after that, they get to discover it through us.”
The lives of professional tennis players may seem glamorous to the public, but in reality, most of their time is spent practicing, working out, playing matches, and resting in their hotel rooms. Kamoun tries to get Jabeur to break free from the routine every once in a while, dragging her to museums or taking her sightseeing. She’d rather be chilling at their hotel room.
“I did so many things that I never do alone, the touristic things that I hate so much, and he loves it so much and I sacrifice myself to go and do that,” says Jabeur. “Like the Statue of Liberty. I went to the US six years in a row and I never went there, but then he took me there the first year he comes with me to the US.”
Behind the funny exterior and the constant stream of jokes coming at you when you talk to Jabeur, it’s not hard to realise that sheer ambition is what lies at her core.
Credit: Dubai Duty Free Tennis Championships
It’s what got her this far and what she believes will carry her even further.
“I want to continue with this. I have the team that I’ve wanted to have from a long time ago, and since I have it, it’s my stability now,” says Jabeur. “I just want to go forward, achieve my level, which will achieve my ranking, and then I want to get a Grand Slam, I don’t know how long it’s going to take but I’m going forward for that”.
And what would it mean if the Arab world finally got its first Grand Slam champion?
“It would be huge. I don’t know what’s going to happen. It’s a dream. I’m pretty sure it will open so many doors for other Arab players.”