PARIS: Ons Jabeur’s long-stated goal is that her historic exploits on court lead to more Arab women taking up tennis – becoming the first Arab player to win a Grand Slam in next month’s French Open final would do wonders to achieve that. The 27-year-old Tunisian became a front-rank contender for tennis’s greatest prize on clay with her gutsy three-set victory over American Jessica Pegula in the Madrid on Saturday.
In doing so the engaging and highly expressive Jabeur wrote another piece of tennis history. Her 7-5, 0-6, 6-2 victory made her the first Arab or African woman to win a WTA 1000 title. Her title in Birmingham last year was the first for an Arab woman player on the circuit and she is the first Arab player – man or woman – to crack the top 10. Indeed she will return to her previous highest ranking of seven on Monday.
With a tour-leading 12 victories on clay so far this season – and with Australia’s world number one Ashleigh Barty having retired – the omens seem positive for her. However, she has another glass ceiling to crack in reaching the last four of a Grand Slam for the first time – so she has two quarterfinals to her credit in Australia in 2020 and Wimbledon last year.
Jabeur – the junior champion at Roland Garros in 2011 – is, though, armed with a powerful weapon apart from her strokeplay. “Definitely all those matches I’ve won on clay will give me a lot of confidence,” she said as she absorbed her Madrid victory. “When you’re confident like that and you win a lot of matches, I think I should take this opportunity to go, like, really forward and win.” Jabeur admits to not watching much tennis when she was growing up and it was her husband Karim Kamoun who was more “obsessed by Roland Garros”.
Kamoun was on hand in Madrid – he planted a kiss on her cheek courtside after her triumph – as were her siblings and the head of the Tunisian tennis federation to see her momentous win. Jabeur welcomes such attention but she would like to see more company in the locker room on the tour as Arab female players have been a rarity. Her compatriot Selima Sfar reached a career high of 75 in the world in 2001 but there was little progress for other Arab women players until Jabeur came on the scene.
“Being the only Arab is not easy to be on tour right now,” she said at Wimbledon last year. “I just want to say if I did it (succeed on tour), it’s not impossible. Like I said before, I always try to inspire other generations.” Jabeur’s favorite player of all time is America’s three-time Wimbledon finalist and 2003 US Open champion Andy Roddick – but it is Morocco’s four-time Grand Slam quarterfinalist Hicham Arazi who has been her role model.
Jabeur said just as Arazi inspired her, so she hopes she can do the same for Arab women. “Honestly, he really inspired me, and I am trying to do the same here,” she said. “I like to see how French people are together (on tour), Americans, Australian, and I feel like I want to see this, you know, with my country. It doesn’t matter, Tunisia or Egypt or Morocco, I really want to see more and more players.”
Even before her great run at Wimbledon last year, Jabeur’s force of personality and talent had already convinced others, including American legend Venus Williams, that she will achieve her goal. “You’re gonna see a whole other generation of women from North Africa coming into tennis,” said Williams. “It’s going to be all owed to her.” – AFP