I met Ons Jabeur for the first time a decade ago when she was a 17-year-old given wildcards to play the WTA tournaments in Doha and Dubai.
The Tunisian had won the 2011 Roland Garros junior title the previous season and was looking to make the step up to the women’s tour, while simultaneously studying for her French baccalauréat in high school.
Several things struck me immediately from our first meeting.
She was a ball of sunshine, warm towards everyone around her and was joking with every individual on-site at the tournament – be it the barista serving her coffee in the players’ lounge, the security guard escorting players to their matches, tournament officials, fellow players.
She was making her tour debut yet somehow everyone knew her and wanted to chat with her.
She was also supremely talented. She played a creative game that wasn’t common on the WTA circuit. She had all these different shots and spins that surprised her opponents, and made for entertaining viewing.
It was a cerebral game style that relied on finesse, but one that wasn’t fully developed yet; she didn’t always know which shot to use at the right moment. She was still only 17 after all.
The most obvious thing I noticed was how ambitious she was. Jabeur was very clear in what she wanted to achieve in tennis. “I want to be a top-10 player,” she told me in our first interview back then. She acknowledged she had things she had to figure out. She said she had breathing problems and needed to work on her fitness. She had a niggling ankle injury that required surgery. And she changed coaches and training bases a few times, searching for the right team, and place, that could help her translate her junior success to the women’s tour.
Jabeur was a teenager but sounded like someone who understood the meaning of responsibility from a very young age. She can switch from playful mode to serious talk very quickly, and can eloquently discuss the challenges of striving to make it on tour and her experience as a Tunisian trying to excel in a sport few Arabs have succeeded in.
Unlike other top juniors from her generation, Jabeur took her time breaking through.
After winning the girls’ title at Roland Garros, it took her six years to break into the WTA’s top 100, achieving that feat in August 2017, just shy of her 23rd birthday.
From then on, every step she took on court broke some kind of record for Tunisian, Arab or African tennis. She was constantly fielding questions about being a trailblazer for her region and she took a decision early on in her career to see that role as a privilege, rather than added pressure.
Today, she is the first African woman to reach a Grand Slam final, and the first Tunisian and Arab player – male or female – to make it to a major final in the Open era, thanks to her exploits at Wimbledon.
“I’ve always had that since the beginning of my junior days,” Jabeur told me in another interview.
“I’m trying to be humble about it. When I go to Fed Cup and I see some players from African countries how they congratulate me, how so many want to take pictures with me, I see how important I am for African tennis.
“And when I go to Arab countries I see Arabs how they react to me, and obviously Tunisia as well. Seeing young kids, how I can inspire them, for me it’s not a heavy weight, it’s an unbelievable privilege.”
If I had to pinpoint when or how things started to really come together for Jabeur, it would have to be around 2018 and 2019, when she finally created a stable team around her that included fellow Tunisians Issam Jellali, her head coach, and Karim Kamoun, her husband and fitness trainer. Her sports psychologist Melanie Maillard is also a key pillar in her camp.
Jabeur got married end of 2015 when she was just 21. Her wedding came on the heels of her appearance at the WTA Rising Stars event in Singapore that featured Jabeur and Naomi Osaka, among others, on the sidelines of the tour’s showpiece WTA Finals tournament.
We had a Mexican dinner in Singapore that doubled as a pseudo-bachelorette party for her, and she spoke about her decision to get married so young.
“It’s a choice to get married at this age,” she told me. “I’m 21, yes, but I don’t see myself like any other 21-year-old who is going to college and having a regular life. I started travelling at a very young age and I feel I’m ready to get married.
“My future husband is an athlete [fencer] so he can really help me and support me. A lot of people have told me that I’m too young to get married but I don’t want to waste my time. If I want to be with him for the rest of my life, I just want to start now.”
That’s the thing about Jabeur; she never shied away from taking full ownership over her decisions, whether in her professional or personal life. She knows she can make mistakes, but always said that even if she did, at least they were hers to make.
Maillard, her mental coach, recently told me in an interview for The National that Kamoun “brought stability” to Jabeur's gruelling life on tour.
Besides stability and support and the obvious ways Kamoun has helped Jabeur, the team as a whole shares a lot more than just tennis-related goals. They have common values – they are the kindest group out there – and share a sense of humour and zest for life.
I once joined them on an early morning trip to the Great Wall of China during the tournament in Beijing. We were up there around 7am and the whole Jabeur team was singing and dancing, playing music on a portable speaker and having an absolute blast.
In Wuhan one time, I was meeting Jabeur and Kamoun at their hotel and we ended up playing cards and chatting to the woman who was performing each night in the lobby. Jabeur knew everything about the singer; from why she wanted to relocate from Wuhan, to her hopes and dreams for the future. She had befriended her in a matter of two days.
Whether she is sharing a laugh with Novak Djokovic, or babysitting her fellow players’ kids at tournaments, Jabeur has stayed true to herself from her junior days ranked outside the top 1000, all the way to now, as a world No 2 ready to contest a Wimbledon final.
“I think Ons is an amazing role model already where she's coming from for all this part, how she plays, how she is outside of the court. It doesn't matter if she's No 2 in the world, I mean, she never changed; that's impressive because that also makes her an amazing person,” said Germany’s Tatjana Maria, the woman Jabeur defeated in the Wimbledon semi-finals on Thursday.
“I think she deserves it. I hope she can go to the end.”
The magnitude of the response to Jabeur’s Wimbledon run this fortnight has been something I have never seen before from the Arab world towards a woman athlete. It’s comparable to how the region has been reacting to Mohamed Salah, who has transcended sport these past few years.
Celebrities, politicians, and people from all walks of life are saluting Jabeur through social media messages. She’s shown them that a young girl from a middle class family from Tunisia can one day make it to a Wimbledon final.
As is the case with football’s "Egyptian King", Jabeur is admired for her sporting achievements, but is truly loved for her character and humility.
She has repeatedly said she hopes to inspire people across the Arab world and the African continent to look past obstacles and barriers and believe in themselves.
Whether she wins Wimbledon on Saturday or not, it’s certainly mission accomplished for the Tunisian Queen.