Ons Jabeur hailed as ‘minister of happiness’ by proud Tunisians

The tennis star has created a sea change in Tunisian views on the sport, breaking down gender barriers

People react in a coffee shop as they watch on screen Ons Jabeur, of Tunisia, playing Iga Swiatek, of Poland, during the women's singles final of the US Open tennis championships in Tunis, Tunisia, on Saturday. AP
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It was a night filled with excitement, nerves, bitterness and pride for the thousands of Tunisians who swarmed cafes to watch their national champion, Ons Jabeur, play the US open final, her second grand slam final in a row against world number one Iga Swiatek.

Despite Jabeur’s loss and failure to become the first Arab and African player to win the US Open title, after becoming the first to reach the final, Tunisians remain filled with pride for their national hero.

Jabeur has not only made great achievements for herself but for Arab and African tennis as a whole.

“Ons changed the whole country’s sports’ culture,” said 26-year-old international relations student Anoir.

“People used to gather in such large numbers only to watch football or team sports, no one could deny that it was the Ons effect that made this shift for different generations to sit together and watch a one on one game such as tennis,” Anoir said.

Many people across the country share Anoir’s view. The magnitude of Jabeur’s achievements can be seen everywhere, from mega billboards on highways with her picture to fans gathering hours before her matches to save a spot to watch their national hero play, a scene normally witnessed when either the Tunisian national football team is playing or when a big local football club is meeting its nemesis at a derby match.

Popular cafes scheduling screenings for Jabeur’s matches are a common scene. Both elderly and young people sit side by side to watch her, and few would have imagined that male-dominated gathering places would be this enthusiastic watching a woman athlete play.

“Look at all those guys watching her, it does not matter whether she wins or loses, she is already a winner in our eyes,” said Linda, a café owner in L’Aouina in Tunis.

Linda told The National that regardless of whether someone likes or understands tennis, one thing is for sure: Jabeur has been able to break previously uncontested gender norms.

“No one would have thought that our Tunisian flag would be flying near the US flag at any sports’ event,” said Issam, a local vendor who left his retail shop to watch the game at the cafe nearby.

Like many other Tunisians, Issam does not know much about the rules of tennis, but he said he’s starting to follow the game and enjoy it thanks to Jabeur.

In the end, despite the disappointment among those watching Jabeur’s loss, Tunisian spectators still expressed their utter pride and happiness for the honourable journey she has made so far.

“She is a symbol of perseverance and dedication, the fact that she has chosen to play for the national flag, made her an idol for many individuals in these hopeless times we’re going through as an entire nation”, Anoir said.

At times where Tunisia is facing a socio-economic crisis, Jabeur prevailed as a source of hope and brought much-needed smiles to otherwise sullen faces, cementing her title as Tunisia’s “Minister of Happiness”.

Updated: June 13, 2023, 8:49 AM