Arab countries don’t immediately come to mind when one ponders on the backgrounds of the world’s best tennis players, but Ons Jabeur has taken the first step to change this notion.
If you are anything like me and have lived in an Arab country for a significant amount of time, then you know just how rare it is to find a tennis community, let alone a tennis court! Ons Jabeur is no stranger to such struggles, but many Middle-Easterners and Africans can now draw inspiration from the Arabian star’s accomplishments in the tennis world.
Indeed, anyone striving for tennis greatness knows that it is incredibly difficult to gain the right support to nurture your career, particularly in the early stages. Of course, living in tennis hubs such as Europe, the US, or even the Asia-Pacific can be a great starting point for one to kickstart their career and be part of a supportive tennis community.
These things are not so easily accessible in the Middle East and Africa, particularly in Tunisia where Ons Jabeur began her incredible tennis journey. Introduced to the sport at the age of three by her mother, Ons would spend the next decade getting the most of what little presence tennis had in the country.
Whether it was being driven all around Tunisia for tournaments or attending tennis courts near hotels due to the lack thereof at her local club, Ons Jabeur was doing all she could to make something of herself, and there’s no doubt she couldn’t do it without the help of family and peers. Fortunately, Ons was able to move to Tunis at age 12, the capital city of Tunisia, where she could train at Lycée Sportif El Menzah, a national sport high school for the country’s future athletes.
As I’ve mentioned, living in a country that provides support networks for your tennis development is vital to becoming a professional player. Ons’ journey towards her dream eventually required her to travel outside of her home country and to a more opportunistic region of the world where she could pursue tennis more purposefully. Thus, at 16 years old, the young Tunisian decided to continue her training in Belgium and France, where she began to accelerate her career in the subsequent years.
There is no doubt that Ons has had a rollercoaster of a journey throughout her junior years, as she wasted no time making a name for herself on the Junior ITF Circuit across Africa and the Middle East throughout her teenage years. We also cannot deny the differential impact that moving to Europe has had on her career, from winning a Junior Grand Slam title to making her WTA Tour main-draw debut within the first couple of years since she relocated.
Arab Women of the Year
2019 was a huge year for Ons Jabeur, competing in all four Grand Slam main draws that year for the first time in her career. While she was knocked out in the first round of the Australian Open, Wimbledon, and French Open, Ons proved she could turn things around and make something out of an unfavorable year by finishing off the season strong.
The final Grand Slam of the year saw the Tunisian progress further than she ever had at that point, reaching the third round of the US Open where she lost in a close match to the world No.3 (at the time) Karolina Pliskova. Despite the heartbreaking defeat, Ons Jabeur reached a career-high ranking of No.51 for her performance in New York.
In a year where Ons was taking on bigger challenges and showing major improvements in her results, she was recognized for her achievements in sport and received one of the prestigious Arab Women of the Year awards by the London Arabia Organisation. The significance of this award is quite grand considering the relative minority of the global Arabian population as well as the lack of a strong Arab tennis community.
First Arab ranked in the Top 10
The following years saw the impact of COVID-19 take a heavy toll on the world of sports, with the cancellation of the 2020 Wimbledon and many players dropping out of tournaments all throughout the year. Nevertheless, Ons Jabeur made the most out of the 2020 and 2021 seasons, continuing to climb the ranks through solid performances and becoming the first Arab woman to reach a Grand Slam quarterfinal at the Australian Open 2020.
This feat coupled with third and fourth-round exits at the US Open and French Open solidified her strong form and confirmed her abilities to compete at the highest level against the world’s best. These results continued through 2021, where Ons reached the quarterfinal of Wimbledon for the first time, again becoming the first Arab woman to do so.
Adding onto her “first Arab woman” feats, she became the first thereof to win a WTA Tour title in 2021, when she secured the Birmingham Classic by defeating Daria Kasatina in straight sets. Edging closer and closer to the WTA Top 10 throughout the year, Ons broke through after an excellent performance at Indian Wells where she reached the semifinals to become, you guessed it, the first Arab woman to rank in the Top 10 at No.7 in the world.
Indeed, Ons Jabeur has since been an inspiring figure in tennis and in sport for not only Arabs but also the world in general. From humble beginnings in Tunisia to conquering the Middle Eastern ITF Circuit to competing on the big stage of Grand Slams, her journey is enough to inspire people beyond the realm of sports and in all walks of life.
Ons may not have won a major yet, but she has certainly shown enough potential to do so, and if she never gets one, she will surely go down in history as one of the best players to not win a Grand Slam. It may be a big call on my end, but I could see Ons Jabeur featuring on the International Tennis Hall of Fame for being an amazing representative for Arab tennis and for the exposure she has given the sport in lesser-known regions of the world once her career closes its curtains.