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TENNIS

Onstoppable: Jabeur makes history and has the world at her feet

Onstoppable: Jabeur makes history and has the world at her feet
Ons Jabeur of Tunisia on her way to victory against Marie Bouzkova of Czech Republic during their women’s singles quarterfinal match on 5 July 2022. (Photo: Julian Finney / Getty Images)

The Tunisian tennis star is breaking down barriers — one drop shot at a time.

Much like a rocket launching into space, Tunisian tennis star Ons Jabeur just keeps rising.

“Ons, I would say, is one of my favourite people on tour,” said celebrated Venus Williams of Jabeur at Wimbledon 2021. “Honestly, she’s just breaking down barriers. The first woman from her country to do anything that she’s doing.

“You’re going to see a whole other generation of women from North Africa coming into tennis. It’s going to be all owed to her. She’s inspiring so many people, including me. She gives 100% every time, holds herself in a way that she respects and that people can respect.”

Indeed, as one half of the legendary Williams sisters pointed out, Jabeur’s feet remain firmly planted on the ground — in spite of her continued rise on the women’s tour, which sees her currently ranked second in the world.

The only time her feet leave the ground is when she is sprinting around the tennis court, trying to counter the attacks of her opponents. Her brand of tennis combines power with a delicate touch and deft drop shots. She also throws in the odd tweener (a trick shot played between the legs).

This collection constitutes a dazzling array of what she terms her “crazy shots”. Wickedly spun slices, flat forehand bullets struck from seemingly impossible positions complement the aforementioned arsenal. Her palpable delight when she pulls off these shots have made her one of the finest entertainers with racquet in hand.

“I don’t like routines. I like fun stuff. For me, entertaining people also entertains me. Plus, it gives me the opportunity to be like an artist. It’s like drawing a picture, doing dropshots and slices. I like variety, to change the rhythm, and I like to be different,” Jabeur has said of her bag of shots.

Humble beginnings

The 27-year-old was born in Ksar Hellal, a small town in northeastern Tunisia, but grew up in the nearby coastal city of Sousse and started playing tennis at a young age.

Her mother Samira — who dabbled in the sport recreationally — encouraged three-year-old Jabeur to pick up her first racquet.

By 12 she was fully invested in the game of tennis, even though Tunisia is a football-­crazy country. Jabeur says she once thought she’d end up as a footballer, but admits she might not have reached the heights on the soccer field that she has on the tennis court.

She worked on perfecting her craft at tourist hotels, where the better courts were.

The determination paid off when as a 16-year-old she became the first North African woman to win a junior Grand Slam tournament, at the French Open.

She also became the first Arab girl to win a junior Grand Slam singles title and the first junior champion since Ismail El Shafei won the Wimbledon boys’ title in 1964.

Then it was the first Arab woman to a Grand Slam third round, at Roland Garros 2017. She equalled that at the 2019 US Open.

A year earlier, she was the first Tunisian to play in a women’s tour final, finishing runner-up to home favourite Daria Kasatkina in Moscow’s Kremlin Cup.

Inspirational

“I won the women’s singles at the 2011 African Games in Mozambique and I have also visited Botswana, Nigeria and Senegal,” Jabeur told the BBC.

“That enabled me to see that there are a lot of players in these countries who are very talented. But they need the inspiration and motivation that they too can become professional players. Of course, they need courts and equipment to play, too, and I hope I can help them.”

She has continued to build on her already impressive record, taking her WTA title haul to three.

In 2021, she won her first senior singles title when she exacted revenge over Russia’s Kasatkina for that Moscow defeat — clinching the Birmingham Classic in the UK.

In 2022 she has added two more singles titles, winning the Madrid Masters by beating America’s Jessica Pegula in May’s final. A month later, she lifted the Berlin Open trophy after reigning Olympic champion Belinda Bencic was forced to retire injured.

At Wimbledon 2022, she added another feather to her hat by becoming the first African woman to make the final in the Open era. This time around, she didn’t win the world’s most famous tournament, losing 3-6 6-2 6-2 to Elena Rykakina of Kazakhstan.

Not since South Africa’s Amanda Coetzer reached the semifinals of the French Open in 1997 has a player from Africa been in the final rounds of a Grand Slam.

Jabeur more than matched that and became the first African woman to reach the final itself.

“I’m honestly living the dream. I always wanted to achieve great things and I always wanted to inspire players from my country and from my continent. It’s very important to me,” she told the BBC recently.

“Whenever I achieve new things and break new barriers, people come up with words to describe what I have done. Journalists call me a trailblazer and headlines say ‘Onstoppable’. People back home in Tunisia even call me the ‘Minister of Happiness’.”

The world is at the Tunisian’s feet as she continues to smash through barriers — one shot at a time, one set at a time. DM

This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper, which is available countrywide for R25.

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