By the time Ons Jabeur had finished her rhapsodic three-set win over the world No 3, Karolina Pliskova, in Doha at the end of February, the crowd had ascended to a state of sheer delirium. It was the best win of her career and, for the audience, a mixture of proud Tunisians and other Arab nationalities scattered around Doha, it was a rare sight of one of their own thriving in this alien sport. And so they chanted her name before, during and after points, cheering endlessly into the night.
“It was crazy,” says Jabeur in a phone interview. “It was kind of tough sometimes because they didn’t know the rules of tennis! They thought it was a football match, but it was amazing, seeing all the Tunisians who made the effort to come and see me with all the Tunisian flags … seeing that I had this impact on people following more tennis makes me proud. Not just football, but tennis.”
Those scenes – the sight of a player, a female player, trailblazing in real time – may turn out to be the most important moment of the tennis season. The Arab world accounts for around 423 million of the world’s population, yet before Jabeur it had yielded only five top-100 players ever. Four were men. The only Arab woman to reach the top level was Jabeur’s compatriot and friend Selima Sfar, who rose to 75 in the world and made the second round of a handful of grand slams during the early 2000s.
Over the past few years, Jabeur has made it her mission to change everything. As she has travelled the WTA Tour, she has carried with her one simple phrase: the first. She was the first Arab woman to reach the third round of a slam, the first to break into the top 50 and the first to reach a WTA final.
Still, it was not until this year, at 25 years old, that she began to unlock her potential. She has reached the quarter-finals of the two biggest tournaments this season, the Australian Open and Doha. In Melbourne she beat Britain’s Johanna Konta in the first round and then ended Caroline Wozniacki’s career. In Dubai, she held match points before barely losing to Simona Halep in a manic tussle. Her win over Pliskova in Doha was confirmation she is capable of securing top results. She stands 11th in the 2020 rankings and at a career high of 39 overall.
Jabeur takes her influence seriously and she is also aware of its unique sphere in tennis. As a Tunisian, she is an Arab woman and African, two of the least represented populations in the sport. While her successes are always reported through an Arab lens, Jabeur has always been clear in her intentions to influence both.
“I’m really, really proud of that,” she says. “Sometimes when we play Fed Cup, some African teams come and they want to take pictures, they ask me about how I’m playing. It’s really inspiring for me. When someone tells me that I’m inspiring them, it gives me more motivation to practice and be more of an example. I hope we can see more players from Africa on the tour.”
Perhaps the most impressive aspect of Jabeur’s rise is the fact her formative years were spent at home. Between the coaching, equipment and unavoidable travel, the costs of playing the sport are vast. Without proper tennis infrastructure and high-level competition, even the most talented players face a perilous route to the top.
As a child, Jabeur’s biggest move was the 90 mile drive from her coastal hometown, Sousse, to the capital city, Tunis, where she trained in a multi-sport academy from 12 years old. She would later leave for brief stints in Europe, but she quickly learned she was most comfortable at home, where she lives permanently. She proudly calls herself a “100% Tunisian product”.
For Jabeur, remaining at home when she was younger meant constantly hearing the laughter and derision of those who would openly tell her that, like most who tried before her, she would never be good enough. “You find these people everywhere,” she says. “They underestimate you. I was a big mouth, I talked, I said I want to win grand slams, and people were laughing and they didn’t believe in me. Some people did believe in me.
“One time I had a surgery on my wrist and the first few days when I came back after five months, I couldn’t play tennis. The balls were flying everywhere, no feelings or nothing. People were watching, making fun of me and saying: ‘Yeah, she’s gotta stop tennis.’ But these thoughts make me stronger.”
Jabeur was excellent from a young age. In 2011 she became the first Arab woman to win the Roland Garros juniors. It only takes a glimpse of her in action to be blinded by her talent. In an era filled with innumerable flat-hitting baseliners, Jabeur is unique. She throws opponents out of their comfort zone with her wicked, heavy topspin forehand. She flits to the net at all opportunities and peppers her opponents with an unending stream of drop shots. Her toolbox contains every shot and she is desperate to use them all with style. That can sometimes be a problem.
“I just started doing these crazy shots from a young age,” she says. “I didn’t choose to play flat or spin. I was just doing crazy shots, which maybe reflects my personality. I like fun, crazy things, I like original stuff. I have so many shots that sometimes it’s tough to choose the right one since I can do everything. Putting [my game] in order helped me to develop.”
Jabeur’s perspective on her game also reflects why she has been able to succeed from such unlikely circumstances. Her strokes are handsome and technically sound, and on the surface they look as if they are the work of a good coach who taught her the correct basics. Her response betrays the single-minded conviction that continues to guide her on a path nobody has trodden before.
“I don’t remember someone telling me I should do that,” she says. “I always do whatever suits me. Sometimes a coach would tell me I do too many drop shots. I’d say: ‘Yeah, sure!’ But I never listen. I’m glad I’m forcing my personality because I’m the one playing on the court, I’m the one doing the shots.”
For now, her career is out of her hands. One day before tennis officially closed until June, Tunisia cancelled all flights and it left her stranded in Miami. She says she had no idea what to do, so went to New York, now one of the worst-hit cities, to stay with a friend.
Even before the culling of Wimbledon, Jabeur did not expect to resume anytime soon in a global sport where players travel weekly from Europe, Asia, the Americas, Oceania and, thanks almost entirely to her on the WTA, Africa. “I’m just taking it day by day, hour by hour, minute by minute,” she says, chuckling. “I know I have the level to be top 20, I just didn’t see coronavirus coming.”