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Tennis star Ons Jabeur is Tunisia’s “minister of happiness”

Tennis star Ons Jabeur is Tunisia’s “minister of happiness”
Ons Jabeur of Tunisia celebrates victory against Aryna Sabalenka following the Women's Singles Semi Finals on day eleven of The Championships Wimbledon 2023 at All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club on July 13, 2023 in London, England. (Photo by Mike Hewitt/Getty Images)

The first African woman to reach a grand slam tennis final, she has once again set Wimbledon – and Tunisian hearts – ablaze.

At the Wimbledon tennis tournament in 2022, Tunisia’s Ons Jabeur become the first African woman and the first Arab tennis player to reach a tennis grand slam singles final in the open era. She repeated this achievement in 2023.

The open or professional era in tennis started in 1968 and the grand slams are the world’s biggest tournaments – the US Open, the Australian Open, the French Open and Wimbledon in the UK. Jabeur is also the highest ranked African and Arab player in open era history.

As a sociologist with a research focus on gender, including in sports in Tunisia and the Arab Maghreb, I have followed Jabeur’s career with interest. On court she is a charismatic and loved figure, but nowhere is she more loved than as a public figure at home in Tunisia, where she represents a new image for women’s sports.

Ons Jabeur of Tunisia plays a forehand during the Women's Singles Final against Marketa Vondrousova of Czech Republic on day thirteen of The Championships Wimbledon 2023 at All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club on July 15, 2023 in London, England. (Photo by Julian Finney/Getty Images)

Ons Jabeur of Tunisia plays a forehand during the Women’s Singles Final against Marketa Vondrousova of Czech Republic on day thirteen of The Championships Wimbledon 2023 at All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club on July 15, 2023 in London, England. (Photo by Julian Finney/Getty Images)

Marketa Vondrousova of the Czech Republic holds the Venus Rosewater Dish alongside Ons Jabeur of Tunisia who holds the runners up trophy during the presentation ceremony after the final of the Ladies' Singles on Centre Court during day thirteen of The Championships Wimbledon 2023 at All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club on July 15, 2023 in London, England. (Photo by AELTC/Andrew Baker via Getty Images)

Marketa Vondrousova of the Czech Republic holds the Venus Rosewater Dish alongside Ons Jabeur of Tunisia who holds the runners-up trophy during the presentation ceremony after the final of the Ladies’ Singles on Centre Court during day thirteen of The Championships Wimbledon 2023 at All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club on July 15, 2023 in London, England. (Photo by AELTC/Andrew Baker via Getty Images)

Who is Ons Jabeur?

The tennis star was born on 28 August 1994 in Ksar Hellal, a small town in Tunisia. She comes from a middle-class family and has two brothers and a sister. She started to become familiar with tennis at the age of three because her mother, an avid player, would take her along when she played on the tennis courts of hotels in the area.

Jabeur’s early success at the sport led to her integration into Tunisia’s system of sport and studies, first in elementary school at a tennis centre promoting the sport, and then in the high school sports academy, El Menzah, in the capital Tunis. Here, her game was gradually shaped.

Her first international career high came in 2011 when she won the French Open junior tournament. Her record is particularly rich on the Women’s Tennis Association circuit – organised by the principal international body of women’s professional tennis. Jabeur has won three singles tournaments and reached seven finals. In May 2022 her win at the Madrid Open made her the first Tunisian, Arab and African player to win a WTA 1000 tournament. She reached the final of the US Open in September 2022, her growing successes showing a new level of technicality and determination.

Women’s tennis legend Serena Williams, making her 2022 return to competition in doubles, chose Jabeur as her partner. Dubbed “Onserena” they played together with great passion and joy, delighting television viewers and social media users.

MADRID, SPAIN - MAY 07: Ons Jabeur of Tunisia celebrates with the trophy following victory during the Women's Singles final match against Jessica Pegula of the United States during day ten of Mutua Madrid Open at La Caja Magica on May 07, 2022 in Madrid, Spain. (Photo by Clive Brunskill/Getty Images)

Ons Jabeur of Tunisia celebrates with the trophy following victory during the Women’s Singles final match against Jessica Pegula of the United States during day ten of Mutua Madrid Open at La Caja Magica on May 07, 2022 in Madrid, Spain. (Photo by Clive Brunskill/Getty Images)

Serena Williams of USA interacts with Ons Jabeur of Tunisia during their Doubles match against Sara Sorribes Tormo of Spain and Marie Bouzková of Czech Republic during Day Four of the Rothesay International Eastbourne at Devonshire Park on June 21, 2022 in Eastbourne, England. (Photo by Charlie Crowhurst/Getty Images for LTA)

Serena Williams of USA interacts with Ons Jabeur of Tunisia during their Doubles match against Sara Sorribes Tormo of Spain and Marie Bouzková of Czech Republic during Day Four of the Rothesay International Eastbourne at Devonshire Park on June 21, 2022 in Eastbourne, England. (Photo by Charlie Crowhurst/Getty Images for LTA)

Why Tunisia loves her

Tunisians fondly call Jabeur the country’s “minister of happiness”. Firstly because she’s so often seen smiling. Secondly, she thrills with her repeated successes on court. In Tunisia, young and old, men and women, are increasingly tuning in to TV broadcasts to follow her matches live. Hashtags like #OnsTounes and #DreamsComeTrue ignite across social media networks, along with Jabeur’s images. Messages of love, admiration and pride are widely shared.

During the coronavirus pandemic she raised funds to help buy medical equipment for Tunisia. She also raises funds for development centres like Talan Tunisia and schools.

Jabeur’s technical team is also Tunisian. Coach Issam Jellali is a former professional player. Her physical trainer is Karim Kamoun, a former professional fencer who is also her husband. Tunisie Telecom, the country’s telecommunications operator, is one of her main sponsors.

Thanks to Jabeur, there is a growing interest in women’s sport and women athletes in Tunisia and across the Arab world. Images of men and soccer are no longer the only sports images dominating the internet.

Changing the image of sport

In world tennis, Jabeur represents sportsmanship. In the final of the Berlin Open her opponent Belinda Bencic injured her ankle. Jabeur had won, but her only concern was to hurry over and comfort Bencic and help prepare a cooler of ice cubes for her injury.

Spectators applaud as Ons Jabeur of Tunisia celebrates victory against Aryna Sabalenka following the Women’s Singles Semi Finals on day eleven of The Championships Wimbledon 2023 at All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club on July 13, 2023 in London, England. (Photo by Patrick Smith/Getty Images)

For Tunisians, she is an example of perseverance and success, a role model for young people. The image of the sport is changing with each of Jabeur’s international appearances. Tennis is no longer considered an elitist game played by men.

In the era of globalised communication, she participates in the staging of a story still in progress – about Tunisian women and their growing visibility and influence. In the process, she gives visibility to Tunisia and a whole continent with it. DM 

This story was first published in The Conversation.

Monia Lachheb is a Professor of Sociology at the Université de la Manouba.

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