Ons Jabeur: Family support everything after another historic season

Speaking to 'The National' ahead of the WTA Finals, the Tunisian world No 2 reflects on a successful year, opens up about her Grand Slam final heartbreak, and shares her 'shock' at Halep's failed doping test

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Ons Jabeur is spotted walking down Main Street in Fort Worth, Texas, carrying her niece in one arm and a bag of to-go food from Cheesecake Factory in the other. Her mother is with her, having just flown in from Tunisia the day before.

Jabeur's family don’t join her on the road much but the world No 2 insisted on having them by her side at the WTA Finals this week, where she will make history as the first Arab or North African to qualify for the prestigious season-ending championships.

Jabeur’s parents, pregnant sister, brother-in-law, and niece travelled from France and Tunisia to join her in Fort Worth and celebrate what has been a record-breaking season for the 28-year-old trailblazer.

At the pre-tournament gala on Friday, a glammed up Jabeur, wearing an elegant Elie Saab dress, said it was her mother’s advice that helped her qualify early for the WTA Finals this season, after just missing out on the tournament last year.

Only the top eight players in the world compete in the WTA Finals and Jabeur was the second to secure her spot for this week’s showpiece; unlike last year when she finished ninth in the Race.

“Last year when I didn’t qualify, my mom was like, 'it’s OK, it wasn’t meant to be, just next year make sure you qualify earlier so you don’t have to stress and get angry like that',” Jabeur told The National in an interview at Dickies Arena on Saturday.

“It’s just very nice to have them all here, it’s amazing to have my family around me, especially because they’ve been there for me since day one.

“For me this is like a small thank you for whatever they did for my career. Spoiling them and bringing them here is just to say thank you for supporting me and that they need to be here with me in the big tournaments.”

During the draw ceremony, the hosts of the event listed Jabeur’s numerous history-making feats she managed to pull off during this 2022 campaign: becoming the first Arab player to reach a Grand Slam final – she made two, at Wimbledon and the US Open – and becoming Africa’s highest-ranked WTA player ever.

“It felt like a great reward for me, just to hear all of that; especially the first Arab, the only this, the first that… that’s really amazing and hopefully we’ll get to do more. It definitely encourages me to do better in the future,” she said.

Another historic season

It’s been a long and eventful year for Jabeur – one that started with her sustaining an injury in January that ruled her out of the Australian Open. Her year really came to life during the clay season in the spring, when she became the first African ever to win a WTA 1000 tournament in Madrid.

She made the Rome final the following week and bounced back from a disappointing opening round exit at Roland Garros with a title triumph in Berlin and a stunning runner-up showing at Wimbledon. Another major final appearance came at the US Open and she is now ready to close out the season with a bang in Texas.

“I can’t choose, there were a lot of great moments,” Jabeur says when asked to pick her favourite moment of 2022.

“Maybe Wimbledon, the fact that Tunisians were really happy for me; how they greeted me in Tunisia after the tournament was really amazing, I think that moment was really powerful, especially the reception they gave me at Carthage theatre.

“It was crazy, imagine 10,000 people standing up and cheering for you and screaming? It was an unbelievable moment.”

US Open heartbreak

Jabeur’s ability to rebound from disappointing moments has been a standout feature of her whole career and she has had to do that multiple times this season. After she lost the US Open final to Iga Swiatek in New York last month, television cameras followed her into the gym and captured a raw and emotional moment where she cried in the arms of her husband and fitness trainer Karim Kamoun and her coach Issam Jellali. The moment resonated with countless tennis fans across the globe and showed just how much Jabeur wanted that maiden Grand Slam victory.

“Everybody reached out and told me they cried with me,” said Jabeur. “I told myself I’m not going to cry but Karim and Issam came to me and were telling me sweet things, that didn’t help at all. People were really supportive and that’s really nice of them.”

Many players reached out to Jabeur after the US Open, including four-time major champion Kim Clijsters, who offered her support after that heart-breaking defeat to Swiatek.

“You could tell she felt really bad for me and she told me if I needed to talk or anything, she’s here for me. That felt great to talk to her, it was brief but it was very nice,” Jabeur said.

Swiatek and Jabeur are the top two seeds in Fort Worth this week and are in different groups in the round robin stage.

Swiatek 'beatable'

Ons Jabeur alngside Coco Gauff and Caroline Garcia during the draw ceremony for the 2022 WTA Finals. Getty

The Polish world No 1 has separated herself from the rest of the pack this year, having clinched eight titles, including two majors at Roland Garros and the US Open.

Players acknowledge that Swiatek is operating at a different level at the moment but Jabeur isn’t dedicating any specific time during practice to figuring out ways to beat the top seed and is instead focusing on herself.

“I personally don’t really work like that, I prefer to focus on myself and improve things in myself. Because in stressful moments, what really helps and what really works is your game and how you can impose your game and if you can maintain that certain level, you can beat anyone,” she said.

“I think that will be my focus. But definitely Iga is on another level right now. It’s great for her, she’s pushing us to do better as players behind her. For me, the main thing is to really focus on myself.

“She is [beatable]. They did beat her before, the winning streak she had in the beginning of the year maybe not, but now, she lost a few matches recently, so anything is possible right now.”

'I love to play in Africa and the Middle East'

Jabeur hasn’t played a match in over three weeks but her most recent appearance on tour was a special one because it came on home soil. She helped bring a WTA tournament to Tunisia for the first time, and despite losing in the quarter-finals, it was a week she will never forget, and one she hopes will open the door for young girls back home to follow in her footsteps.

During the offseason, Jabeur has two important stops on her calendar this December: a charity exhibition in Johannesburg, South Africa with Sloane Stephens and a second consecutive appearance at the Mubadala World Tennis Championship in Abu Dhabi, where she will play Emma Raducanu.

She says some of her best tennis memories were when she competed in the African Championships when she was young, whether she was making friends with the other teams in Botswana, or getting stranded at the airport in South Africa due to a cancelled flight.

“We played tennis in the airport, we played with chocolates, we were really bored but figured out ways to entertain ourselves,” she said.

“I’m just really excited to go to South Africa and see how people know me as an African tennis player, what’s the impact I have there, I’m really curious to see what’s going to happen there.

“The two places I always love to play are Africa and the Middle East. Those places are where I want to go and enjoy myself. I had a nice experience last year at Mubadala, this year people know I’m coming in advance, so it will be nice to see how many people will come to cheer for me. It’s amazing to have that and I really look forward to play in Abu Dhabi.”

As the world No 2, Jabeur automatically gets Tunisia qualified for a new mixed team event called the United Cup in Australia in January. It might be a bit of a struggle to find a competitive team given the low number of Tunisian women currently listed on the WTA rankings and Jabeur joked that it would be easier if a Tunisian-Egyptian team could be combined so she could partner up with Egypt’s rising star Mayar Sherif.

'Shocked' by Halep news

A highly-discussed topic in the world of tennis at the moment is Simona Halep’s failed doping test and her provisional suspension. The former world No 1 tested positive for the banned substance Roxadustat and has vowed to clear her name.

Like many, Jabeur was “shocked” by the news.

“I don’t know, for me it’s very sad to see what could happen when someone makes a mistake. What she’s saying is that it was [an unintentional] mistake. For me, someone cheating, you can see the level of the substance you took is really high, but what she took is really low,” said Jabeur.

“I’m not sure what happened. I think that’s the fear of every player, is to take something unknowingly and it shows up on your doping test. It’s definitely a very uncomfortable situation. I don’t know what happened and hopefully what she’s is saying is true. But definitely no one wants to see that happening to them.”

Jabeur commences her WTA Finals campaign on Monday (early hours of Tuesday UAE time) against Belarusian Aryna Sabalenka. Jessica Pegula and Maria Sakkari are the other two players in their group.

Updated: October 31, 2022, 7:31 AM