Ons Jabeur: Tunisian tennis star on a 'mission' to lead the way for Arab female athletes

In an exclusive interview with 'The National', the world No 10 explains why tennis is 'not just a sport' to her and reveals a new set of ambitious goals for 2022

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Ons Jabeur is on a mission. Sure, the Tunisian tennis star has lofty ranking goals. Of course, the greatest Arab player of all time is targeting titles in the biggest tournaments. But the mission transcends beyond a place in the top five or another trophy — although such rewards would no doubt assist Jabeur in achieving her objective.

Coming from a country with limited tennis infrastructure and no proven path to follow, Jabeur paved her own. Since winning the junior French Open in 2011 at the age of 16, her journey in the professional ranks has had its challenges, but Jabeur is now established at the top-tier of the WTA Tour.

“I don’t play for myself any more. I play for my country, my continent, my region. Tennis for me is not just a sport,” Jabeur, 27, told The National. “I try to set an example for people who want to be here one day, to have that opportunity to compete.

“I know there are a lot of women in other countries who are not able to do that, and by me representing Arab women, I can lead by example. It’s very important for me and hopefully I can succeed in sharing this message.”

As a consequence of her rise, the past two years have been packed full of historic milestones. Becoming the first Arab woman to reach a Grand Slam quarter-final, achieved at the 2020 Australian Open, proved a tipping point. Jabeur emulated that feat at Wimbledon this past summer, two weeks after winning her maiden WTA title at the Birmingham Classic in another watershed moment for Arab tennis.

Jabeur, who reached a career-high No 7 in the rankings in November and currently sits at No 10, is the highest-ranked Arab player — female or male — in history. She was right in the mix for a place in the season-ending WTA Finals, where only the top eight qualify, only for injury to scupper those hopes. But Jabeur is not done there. In fact, she's only just getting started.

“I know I have a lot of people behind me, a whole region behind me,” she said. “It’s a mission for me. I feel like I have this job, this mission to rise and set this example; to work even harder and get even better and keep setting higher goals. I want to continue and make everyone proud.”

Jabeur has never been shy about expressing those goals. At the start of 2021, she made it abundantly clear that her target was the top 10 and titles. With both of those aims achieved — after a “crazy year” and a “dream” grass-court season — it's time to raise the bar even higher.

“I like to set high goals; I like to say them out loud to put pressure on myself,” she said. “I want more titles and I want to be in the top five, top three. I want to win the big titles. Those are the main goals.

“I gained a lot of experience from last year and I want to challenge myself and see if I can continue this level and try to improve even further.”

The immediate next step towards achieving those targets, and getting herself prepared for the start of the season, comes at the Mubadala World Tennis Championship on Thursday.

Jabeur was drafted in last-minute to replace US Open champion Emma Raducanu, who was forced to withdraw after testing positive for Covid-19. It was so last-minute that she only landed in Abu Dhabi at 4am on Wednesday morning.

“I’ve never travelled that much in my entire life! I was in Kuwait and as soon as I got into Tunis I received a text to say there was a good chance I would come to Mubadala,” Jabeur said. “I’m super excited to be here and I’ve been waiting for this opportunity. I think it was meant to be so that’s why I did everything in my power, with the help of [organisers] IMG, to get here in time.”

Jabeur will play Olympic gold medallist Belinda Bencic in the one-off women's match on Thursday evening, following the men's quarter-final matches where Taylor Fritz faces Denis Shapovalov, and Dan Evans takes on Andy Murray.

“I think what she’s doing is huge; she’s inspiring a whole region of Arabs, not only women,” Bencic, 24, said of her opponent. “I’ve known her for a long time and how she is as a person — she’s so down to earth and so nice and so friendly to everyone. I’m so happy for her.”

Updated: December 15, 2021, 5:48 PM