When Billie Jean King and her fellow members of the ‘Original 9’ broke away from the tennis establishment 51 years ago to lay the groundwork for women’s professional tennis, her dream was to build a tour that would accept any player from across the globe that was good enough to compete.
As Ons Jabeur made history this week as the first Arab tennis player to crack the top 10, King felt like her vision was being realised all over again in the form of the Tunisian’s unprecedented achievement.
“It’s a connection to our dream back in 1970 and Ons is actually living the dream. The players today are living our dream that we had for them,” King told The National in an exclusive interview on Wednesday.
“When we started the tour, there were three things we wanted to accomplish. One of them is that any girl in the world, if she’s good enough, would have a place to compete, and we meant that.”
King met Jabeur for the first time earlier this month at Indian Wells, where a few players had a meet and greet with the American legend, and founder of the WTA, and received signed copies of her recently released memoir All In.
They spoke about various topics, including Jabeur’s need for consistency, and King noted a fun connection between them in that Jabeur’s maiden WTA title triumph this year came in Birmingham, which is where King clinched her final trophy as a 39-year-old, in 1983, before retiring from the sport.
Jabeur first caught King’s eye a year ago after the Tunisian took part in a video campaign for the ITF honouring the renaming of the Fed Cup competition to the Billie Jean King Cup.
In a conversation we had 13 months ago, King was curious to know everything about Jabeur and she later asked me for her phone number to get in touch with her.
King called Jabeur on the morning of her 2020 Roland Garros third-round match against Aryna Sabalenka, which provided ample motivation for the North African to pull off an upset and become the first Arab woman in history to reach the last-16 stage in Paris.
“I just knew I should call her,” King said. “I do call players, not just her, or we meet through people, and I just thought it was important.
“She has such a yearning to do well for the Arab people, and that came through really loud and really clear.
“She’s trying to represent the Arab people and I’m very big about what you do off the court, not just on the court. So I think I really admired that part of her. The reason I like it is because it’s always easy when you both think the same way, because I feel the same way, that I’m representing people, I love team play, I love representing my country, I love the fact that it’s something bigger than yourself, and I see that in her; I see that sameness in her that I admire.
“Because I think we need to use our sport as a platform to do good and I think she is, and I love that. I love the fact she’s so proud of being Arab, and she’s representing Arabs; she wants to make a difference for women’s tennis as well.
“So she’s got a lot of things going on that she’s trying to help make this world a better place and I admire what she’s trying to do and I’d like to see her succeed.”
King has been watching many of Jabeur’s matches recently and joked that she wished she could coach her so she could help her with a few aspects of her game. She admires the 27-year-old’s character and sense of humour, which she can tell translates into her “playfulness” on court, and feels there is more to come from Jabeur, who landed at No 8 in the world rankings this week.
“She can improve a lot, so I don’t think No 8 is going to be her top ranking at all, I think she’s got the ability to go much higher,” King said.
“And I think as a child, or when she was younger and maybe still to this day, a few of the things I’ve read is her saying she’s always wanted to be No 1. So she’s going in the right direction that’s for sure.”
As Jabeur continues her history-making feats, further down the rankings, Egypt’s Mayar Sherif is also making moves as she rose to a career-high No 64 in the rankings this week.
With two Arab women ranked in the top 65, interest in the sport in North Africa is at an all-time high and there are murmurs of a possible WTA tournament coming to Egypt in the near future.
“When you get a top player, it changes everything, it’s inspirational,” King said.
“If you can see it, you can be it, and that’s what they’re starting to see. They’re starting to see it actually happening to two of their own people, and so all of a sudden they’re saying, ‘Why not me? If they can do it, I can do it’. And that happens with a lot of young people, I remember watching Althea Gibson for me, she was my shero. These are the things that do happen, and great things will come from it.”
King believes sports authorities in the Arab region must work hard on accessibility, to make sure tennis is available to everyone, not just people with financial means. She says coaches will need to be trained and locals will need to invest in the talented individuals who rise through the ranks.
“It brings great pride to the country, so it’s an investment in the people of their country,” she said.
“They’re going to help make this world a better place, not only on the court, but off the court. You have to think bigger than someone just getting a ranking; how is she influencing? Everyone is an influencer, and she’s influencing others, both of them (Jabeur and Sherif) are inspiring others.
“I think if the people that have a lot of money and have a lot power and think about this issue, about tennis, it’s a global sport and it’s just an amazing sport because you get to travel all over the world and learn from each other and it helps create champions on and off the court, and it also helps them learn how to lead, teaches them how to be a good person.”