For the second time this year, Ons Jabeur has made a Grand Slam final.
Victory in the US Open against world No. 1 Iga Swiatek would be a defining moment in African tennis history, but the achievement of reaching the final alone is already a game-changer for the sport in Tunisia and beyond.
“Ons [Jabeur] is a breath of fresh air for many people in Tunisia,” Anis Bouchlaka, national technical director of the Tunisian Tennis Federation, told DW last year.
“I have seen with my own eyes people watching her matches at the cafe,” Bouchlaka said, referring to traditional Tunisian cafes that are usually only ever filled with men.
“I have seen workers, building and parking attendants watching her Wimbledon matches sitting on a chair … It’s really something incredible. If someone had told me that a few years ago, I wouldn’t have believed it.”
Jabeur’s rise is equally hard to fathom. For someone who first picked up a racket when she was 3, largely because her mother needed to get her to do something to be quiet, Jabeur’s progress has been a slog rather than a sprint.
She played her first event back in 2008 and, other than a 2011 Roland Garros juniors victory, it took nearly a decade for Jabeur to break into the top 100.
Over the last two years, however, the Tunisian has risen to prominence. After winning in Birmingham in 2021, she won in Madrid and Berlin this year. Finishing runner-up at Wimbledon earlier this summer was the one that changed everything, with the Tunisian postal service even unveiling a stamp in Jabeur’s honor.
Jabeur’s creativity on the court and her superb slice makes her fun to watch, but it’s the legacy she is creating that takes her beyond just another player reaching their peak.
As the first Arab tennis player to reach the top 10 in either ATP or WTA rankings history, Jabeur is constantly rewriting history every time she makes another round of a Grand Slam. She is changing the game for her country — in October, Tunisia will host a WTA 250 tournament for the first time, in Monastir, not far from where Jabeur grew up.
“I just want to give an example for many generations coming from North Africa, from my country, from the African continent, that it’s not impossible, that we can do it. I’ve been trying to carry this message for a very long time. Hopefully, it is working,” Jabeur said after beating Swiatek in the fourth round of Wimbledon in 2021.
Throughout it all, she hasn’t lost her connection to Tunisia either. The 28-year-old still trains in her homeland, saying, after some experiences abroad, that to optimize her progression and her game she needed to reconnect with her roots.
“I was also able to realize that abroad, several coaches have tried to standardize my game a little,” Jabeur told Tunisian outlet Inkyfada. “In Tunisia, my coaches have always been able to adapt their instructions to my personality, which is reflected in my game.”
Fun to watch as a player, Jabeur is also endearing as a person. During her run at Wimbledon she ended up playing and beating Germany’s Tatjana Maria, a close friend.
“She loves children and sees mine almost as her own,” Maria told German broadcaster SWR. “She’s part of our family.”
‘Minister of Happiness’
During the same tournament, Jabeur raised nearly €18,000 ($18,142) for the renovation of a school in Tunisia by donating €100 for each ace and winning dropshot. When Jabeur presented the check it was nearly double that amount. During the pandemic, she put one of her rackets up for auction to help buy medicine for people in Tunisia.
Jabeur’s open nature and good sense of humor are a welcome change to a sport loaded with the usual professional athlete platitudes. After beating Ajla Tomljanovic in the US Open, Jabeur joked she was going to be fired as “Minister of Happiness,” her nickname back in Tunisia, because she had been too down on herself during the match, even twice throwing her racket to the ground.
“It’s tough sometimes to manage the frustration, tennis is a tough sport and I apologize for my behavior,” she said. “I really wanted to just keep calm but the racket kept slipping away from my hand!”
It’s no surprise that her favorite player growing up was US star Andy Roddick, famous for his big serve and funny jokes.
Earlier in the year, she played doubles with Serena Williams and throughout it all acted in the only way possible around the greatest player of all time: with a huge smile of disbelief. The pair were nicknamed “OnsRena,” further endearing her to tennis fans.
Victory would cement her place in tennis history, especially against the world No. 1 Swiatek, but Jabeur has already done something very few in sport can dream of, namely leave a legacy beyond the court for future generations.