There are few knowns in the life of Ons Jabeur—even without the coronavirus mixing it up. The 26-year-old Tunisian tennis player went into England’s grass-court season earlier this summer unsure of how she might perform after months of tournament bubbles. She could hardly have predicted that she would emerge from the Viking Classic Birmingham with her first W.T.A. singles title and from Wimbledon Centre Court with a win over tennis icon Venus Williams.
But Jabeur had dreamed of—and practiced for—one definite: her post-match interview. She had been rehearsing it in her head for years, over dozens of grueling hours spent on the largely unnoticed backcourts of Grand Slams.
When her time in the spotlight finally came, Jabeur said there are “so many Arab people watching me and supporting me.… I don’t want the journey to stop here. Hopefully, whoever is watching—and I hope so many of the young generation is watching—they will be inspired and I can be playing with a lot of players [from Tunisia] next to me.”
Indeed, as many surprised commentators have alluded to since Jabeur’s disruptive 2020 season, 2021 might prove to be her year as she enters the U.S. Open season. Jabeur has cracked the Top 25 in the world rankings; tied this year’s Wimbledon champion and W.T.A. No. 1, Ashleigh Barty, in tour matches won; and has earned nearly $1 million in prize money. Just yesterday, she topped 2019 U.S. champion Bianca Andreescu in the Canadian Open. “Is Ons Jabeur … a veteran? Or is she the Next Big Thing?” asked the tennis writer Steve Tignor.
But Jabeur is not new; in fact, she has been one of the most enduring—and endearing—professional players on tour since 2011, when she came on the scene with her junior French Open win just months after Tunisia re-emerged from the Arab Spring. Does it annoy her that it has taken tennis’s talking heads so long to come around? Jabeur, speaking from her home in Tunis, is diplomatic: “I am happy that curiosity about tennis in Africa is growing.”
“Sometimes you need someone to show you the path,” Jabeur says. “When I was young … I struggled and I didn’t believe in myself, because I didn’t see many Tunisians before me. I had to say to myself, O.K., it’s a small country. It’s Africa, but we are human beings, we are capable.
“I hope we can change this overall mentality one day.”
And, backcourt by backcourt, Jabeur is changing it. She has paved the way for other Middle Eastern and African tennis professionals, including Egyptians Mayar Sherif (W.T.A. No. 97) and Mohamed Safwat (A.T.P. No. 175), fellow Tunisian Malek Jaziri (A.T.P. No. 269), and Algerian Ines Ibbou (W.T.A. No. 610).
“Knowing where she comes from and the conditions she faced, she wouldn’t be at that level without a strong, deep determination,” says Ibbou, who spent time training with Jabeur during the coronavirus lockdown. “Because of that, I really think she can achieve something big, like winning a Grand Slam soon.”
Safwat, who experienced his own 2020 boost after winning the African Games in 2019, agrees. “What [Jabeur] has done so far is inspiring for all of Arab tennis—male and female players,” he said from the Tokyo Olympics. “I believe she can still do more.”
Eyes on the Prize
The youngest of four children, Jabeur grew up in the coastal town of Sousse and started playing tennis at the age of three. After playing the African circuit for 10 years, Jabeur first gained international attention with her 2011 girls’ singles Grand Slam as well as with her style of play. She loves to “mix it up,” she says, hitting a baseline stroke, a drop shot, and a winner—sometimes all in the same point.
At age 13, Jabeur moved to Tunis to train, and then, briefly, to Belgium and France, where she resisted her coaches’ instincts to mold her into a power baseliner. “They wanted to change my game and told me to play like Sharapova,” Jabeur says. “I thought, How can I be like Sharapova when we are completely different players? Now I rely on myself much more.”
Since her landmark appearance at Wimbledon last year, Jabeur has “joined the greats,” read a headline in the Arabic-language newspaper Al Chourouk. Tunisians now call her “Onstoppable,” and as the country battles the highest coronavirus-death rate in the region—and braves renewed political turmoil following the president’s coup-like power grab last week—it looks to her for moxie. Earlier this summer, Jabeur auctioned off the rackets she used in her Wimbledon victories to raise $26,900 for coronavirus treatments in Tunisia.
And while the young star still battles herself more than any other opponent, Jabeur also knows “that I am going to have that [Grand Slam] title that I always wanted in my life.
“I have a very good imagination, and trust me, as I fall asleep, I can see myself raising that trophy and giving the speech.”
Adrian Brune is a London-based journalist