By Hanya El Ghetany
In a region where athletes don’t particularly perform well in tennis, a young lady from a small town in Tunisia just won the 1000-level Madrid tournament! Many Arabs are talented athletes, but often lack the financial resources to support training, sponsorships, and participation in higher levels of competition. Some countries are simply unconcerned especially when the sport is not considered a national sport, or when they don’t have enough experience handling it. As a result, you’ll witness some Arab athletes play for other nations. However, when a winner from the Arab world, a WOMAN, overcomes all of these challenges, carrying the Tunisian flag, and never giving up on her all-Tunisian team despite criticism, expect nothing less than a celebration that hails from Morocco to Oman. Hang on, a celebration across the entire African continent!
Ons Jabeur, a 27-years old Tunisian tennis star, had never reached a WTA 1000 final before this tournament. Her first history-making impact on tour was becoming the first Arab male or female player to reach the top ten singles rankings. She’s made noise at the majors as well, reaching the quarter finals in Australia 2020 and Wimbledon 2021. Last year, she reached the semifinals of Indian Wells. Here, she was able to extend her best form all the way to the final, defeating Ekaterina Alexandrova in the semis and became the first Arab and African player to do make a final at a 1000-level event. Jabeur went on to beat Jessica Pegula in the final and won her first WTA 1000!!
When Jabeur is full on Jabeur, she’s such a joy to watch. On the court, she shows a lot of innovation (along with an incredible amount of talent), and I consider her an “all-court” player. She is the queen of dropshots. Jabeur is not hesitant to approach the net, despite the fact that this exposes her to passing shots. She plays with such devotion, giving a special focus to angles and spins. That’s why seeing Jabeur play is so inspiring: it’s like witnessing a performance by someone who is completely dedicated to what they do.
Jabeur’s run to the final wasn’t quite straightforward, but she pulled through to the final despite not being a favourite. Her matches were all ups and downs. She played Jasmine Paolini in the first round (7-6, 6-1). She then faced Varvara Gracheva and got bageled in the second set, but rebounded strongly to take the third (7-5, 0-6, 6-4). Her third round was against Bencic (6-2, 3-6, 6-2). Jabeur faced Halep in the quarterfinals, surprisingly and soundly beating her 6-3, 6-2 in about an hour. I lost count of the number of brilliant drop shots by Jabeur in that match, many of which were at critical times. She maintained her brilliant run of form by beating Ekaterina Alexandrova in the semifinals (6-2, 6-3).
Finals bring a new kind of pressure, and Pegula led 4-1 in the first set only for Jabeur to make a great comeback and win the opener 7-5. Again, Jabeur survived the disappointment of getting bageled in the second set, taking the third 6-2 and plenty of history along with it.
People don’t quite realise the impact the success of an Arab player, especially a woman, in any given sport can have on the rest of the region. Their success gives us hope. When their accomplishments are recognised by the world and highlighted by big names in the industry, it just tells us “Hey, we can do it too, we just have to believe in ourselves and work hard”. It’s kind of our assurance that despite the many sad instances in the region, we are not at a disadvantage in the world of sport. In a part of the world where we’re still trying to normalise gender equality, many young Arab ladies are now motivated by this amazing win, and many minds have been transformed.
Don’t get me wrong, this win is for Jabeur and Jabeur only. She is the one who overcame all the challenges to reach where she is now. She is the one who trained and financed her way to her first final. That win, however, is a win that we’re all proud of and that will challenge and change a generation to come.
Every now and then, we get an Arab who changes the interest of a sport in the region. When you listen to Tsitsipas or Ruud talk about this matter, they always acknowledge that they want to change how tennis is looked at in their country. That is what Ons is doing. However, when you’re an Arab, you don’t only do it for one country, you do it for 22. When you’re North African, you’re doing it for the entirety of the continent of Africa. In this region of the world, it’s past time to advocate for women’s empowerment. It’s pretty amazing that cultural growth is taking place in a sport that isn’t particularly well-watched in the region.
In the world of football, you will find names like Mo Salah, Riyad Mahrez and Achraf Hakimi who had a big impact in the western world. It’s time tennis had a star from the region to continue with the positive change, and that star is none other than our very own Tunisian Ons Jabeur. No Arab man or woman has ever won a tennis major, and it’s about damn time we had one. Jabeur may well chase down one of those titles as well.