After Ons Jabeur, tennis in the Arab world won't be the same again

More boys and girls will take up the sport. Governments should take advantage of this

Tunisia's Ons Jabeur poses with her runner-up trophy after the women's final at the Wimbledon tennis championships on Saturday. EPA
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Ons Jabeur made sporting history on Saturday, when she played Elena Rybakina in the women’s singles final at the Wimbledon tennis championships. She did of course narrowly miss out on the chance to win but it was still a defining moment.

Victory for the Tunisian would have given Africa and the Arab world their first ever grand slam singles champion. But despite her loss, Jabeur left the All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club having won millions of fans around the world – not just by how well she played in all seven of her matches, but also with her grace, generosity, wit and charm.

As the world’s No 2-ranked women’s player takes a well-deserved break, her career is already having a positive impact on the sport in the Middle East and Africa. And this is worth celebrating.

On several occasions in the past, Jabeur has been asked about how she carries the weight of millions of fellow Africans and Arabs on her back. Acutely aware that the Mena region has produced so few elite-level tennis players like her, she has embraced the responsibility that comes with being a trailblazer since she turned professional in 2011.

What seemed like a burden to her in the initial years is today a privilege, as she once told The National. Jabeur has made use of this privilege by working hard and staying committed to the sport, even during the leanest periods of her career. After assembling a strong team, which took a number of years, she belatedly broke into the top 100 rankings in 2016 before embarking on a record-breaking spree. Last year, she became the first Arab and North African woman to break into the top 10. This year, she won the Madrid Open, which is in a category of tournaments second only to the four tennis grand slams. No African player had achieved this feat before.

In Jabeur, tennis has an important ambassador. She has earned the moniker “Minister of Happiness” for her smile and the thrill she brings to her supporters after every win. Social media is abuzz with her images along with hashtags such as #OnsTounes and #DreamsComeTrue. The Tunisian’s recent performances have brought together, even if only momentarily, a nation battling economic problems and political divisions.

Her immense popularity, coupled with her contributions to pandemic relief efforts back home, have meant that she has effectively transcended the sport, in much the same way Egyptian football star Mohamed Salah had a few years ago. This is important for young Arabs seeking genuinely global role models from the region.

Jabeur appeared understandably disappointed at the post-match felicitation ceremony on Saturday. Yet, she did not lose sight of the big picture, when she said: “I’m trying to inspire many generations from my country. I hope they are listening.” Judging by the sharp rise in the number of young Tunisians taking up the sport in recent months, according to some tennis clubs in the country, they certainly are.

This could be true about the wider region, too. With Jabeur at the peak of her powers, governments and the private sector would be wise to use this moment to put the right incentives in place and attract more boys and girls to play competitive tennis.

Published: July 10, 2022, 2:30 PM