'Everyone wants to be Ons Jabeur' at Tunisian tennis club where it began for the star

Children aspire to star's kindness as much as her magnificent drop shot

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As the stadium lights warmed up over centre court at the Monastir Tennis Club in Tunisia on Wednesday evening, Zainab, 7, bounced anxiously side to side on the court's baseline, mini-racket in hand, poised for the first serve.

She had two big matches on her mind: the night's battle-of-the-sexes doubles game she was playing with her friend Shahed against two eight-year-old boys — and Ons Jabeur's semi-final match at Wimbledon.

“Ons is just the best, so I hope she wins — she's even better than Nadal,” Zainab said after the match, beaming in spite of her defeat to the boys and setting off a flurry of bickering between her friends over who was the game's greatest player: Rafael Nadal, Roger Federer, Serena Williams or Jabeur.

Even if the title of greatest would not be settled soon, one thing was certain: at the tennis club where Jabeur got her start, everyone wants to be the next Ons.

Jabeur holds the number two spot in the Women's Tennis Association (WTA) rankings and is the favourite at Wimbledon this weekend after winning her semi-final match against Tatjana Maria on Thursday.

She has been a trailblazer for the sport in her home country and across the region. She was the first African or Arab player to break into the WTA's top 10, then the top five. This spring, she picked off American Jessica Pegula at the Mutua Madrid Open to become the first Arab player to win a WTA 1000 title.

Her athleticism, mental toughness and magnificent drop shot have helped propel her rise. But it is Jabeur's humility, warmth and generosity that have made her a darling of the sport — and the pride of Tunisia, where she is known as the minister of happiness.

Young players at Monastir Tennis Club, where Ons Jabeur's success and her endearing personality have grown the popularity of the sport. Erin Clare Brown / The National

“We are so proud of the way she plays, but also of how she acts, and speaks and promotes Tunisia. She is just the best example of the qualities of a good person,” said Amina Radwan, who has played at the Monastir Tennis Club since she was a child, and whose two children now train there.

Ms Radwan said she watches Jabeur's matches with her daughter Sarah, 6, and points out her non-tangible qualities as much as her form.

“Sarah's the littlest in her group and can find it hard when the bigger kids outplay her, so I showed her how Ons failed at the beginning, but how she stayed focused and came back. Now, when she gets discouraged, I tell her 'Look at Ons, she comes back'.”

Jabeur's grit and grace are qualities Mezri Ben Hassem, the sports director at Monastir Tennis Club saw in her as a child when she first came to the club from the small town of Ksar Hellal to train with her mother and older siblings.

“She was just four years old, with a tiny racket, but from the beginning she had a very special personality,” he said. She would never get angry or flustered, but instead worked hard to build her form and always seemed to genuinely love playing.

"She's even better than Nadal!" - boys and girls at the Monastir Tennis Club aspire to be like Ons Jabeur. Erin Clare Brown / The National

Mr Ben Hassem said that personality has done more than just endear her to fans — it has propelled her to where she is today.

“There are many women with more speed or power in their stroke, but when you get to the court, you have to be mentally ready. She is the best mentally in the sport.”

Jabeur's success has been a boon for the club, boosting enrolment in the tennis academy and filling the courts with dozens of mini Onses chasing down balls or practising their forehand each evening.

In a country in which football is king, the Queen of Tennis is giving her sport a major boost.

“Everyone wants to play tennis now, and everyone wants to be Ons Jabeur,” he said.

Yousef Zrafi, 11, is one of them. “She is my role model in tennis and has helped to grow the sport in Tunisia,” he said as he practised his overhand serves after a lesson.

Yousef, who has trained at the club for two years, said tennis has changed his mentality.

“There's lots of serenity in tennis, there's lots of quiet and that's really nice,” he said.

A future tennis star practises her forehand at Monastir Tennis Club, where Ons Jabeur trained as a young player. Erin Clare Brown / The National

There will not be much quiet for Yousef and the other children training at the club in the next few days as Jabeur attempts to win Wimbledon.

Everyone across Tunisia will be glued to their TVs or computers at home or in local cafes, cheering her on as loudly as they can.

Sarah, 6, plans to watch with her mother and brother — or at least try. “Sometimes she gets so nervous for Ons, she has to cover her eyes,” Ms Radwan said.

Updated: July 07, 2022, 3:03 PM
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