Ons Jabeur wants level playing field as Arab women take tennis by storm

Tunisian star tells The National she hopes to see more investments in WTA, which can help close inequality gap

Tunisia's Ons Jabeur during a practice session ahead of the Wimbledon championships. EPA
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For the first time in history, there are two Arab women seeded in a Grand Slam and Tunisian Ons Jabeur is thrilled to be sharing the spotlight with Egypt’s Mayar Sherif at Wimbledon this fortnight.

Ranked No6 and No31 respectively, Jabeur and Sherif are just two examples of scores of Arab women athletes excelling on the global stage, often outperforming their male counterparts and breaking many barriers along the way.

“I think it’s so great to see. Who would have even thought to see one Arab woman, and now you have two, and possibly more on the way? It’s unbelievable what Mayar is doing for Egypt, for Africa, and we hope to see more,” Jabeur told The National on the eve of the Championships in south-west London.

“Maybe now, with the times, with the more freedom that we have, and also seeing other women doing great in other sports, I think that encourages us,” the 28-year-old says when explaining why women from the region are rising to the top, and not necessarily the men.

“I believe that women are taking advantage more and more of their chances to show who they are and I believe it’s very important to do that. And hopefully we can change that forever.”

Having established herself as a regular fixture in the world’s top 10 over the past two years – rising to a career-high No2 last year – Jabeur feels she has gained a deeper perspective on the state of equality, or inequality, between women and men in tennis and she wants to shed light on the issues she and her fellow WTA players are facing.

“I still believe there is a big gap we should close. I see, maybe now that I’m in the top 10, how women are treated, there’s still a lot more to do,” said the two-time Grand Slam finalist.

The WTA announced last week a pathway to achieve equal prize money at all combined tournaments by the year 2027 and at all non-combined events by 2033. Jabeur is happy the association has taken such a step but feels it should have been in the works a lot sooner.

The Tunisian also believes women’s tennis is unfairly portrayed in a negative light, which possibly makes it unappealing to investors.

“It’s great that the WTA is trying to do that. My question is: Why now? Why didn’t you start this pathway a few years ago?” she asks.

“I’m sure somebody messed up some deals and that’s why we’re in this situation. I don’t believe women’s tennis is that bad, I feel like media [is playing a part]. I’m going to be 100 per cent honest with you. If a top-10 woman player loses to another player, it’s seen as an upset, it’s bad, it’s ‘women’s tennis’.

“But on the men’s side, if they do it, it’s an unbelievable result, it’s an unbelievable achievement. That mindset they have, the way they look at women is always on the negative side.

“I’ve heard some players saying, ‘But you cannot get sponsors’. How would you want us to get sponsored if you’re already making us look bad because you talk bad about us?

“I’m not saying that every match is beautiful, no, there are good and bad matches, and the same thing is happening on the men’s side.

“I’m not asking for free stuff as a woman, never; but give me my chance to prove who I am, give any other woman who is playing in any other sport. It’s very important to give them their chances and the world needs to change because I believe there is a lot to see in women’s sport.”

A recent report in the Financial Times has revealed that Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund (PIF) is exploring investment opportunities into the ATP. Jabeur is “praying” the WTA is being considered as well, especially at a time where Arab women are the ones making history week in, week out, on the tennis tour.

“At the moment, the best Arab players are women. So I pray, I really pray that they [Saudi Arabia] would go for women’s tournaments, not only men,” declared Jabeur.

“If it’s men and women, make it equal, make it equal prize money. For a country like Saudi that is evolving and giving rights to women, I’m actually praying that they would give us our chance.

“I’ve been hearing from Twitter, from everywhere else that [Saudi is interested in] ATP this, ATP that, and it kills me. Hopefully that’s not true [that they are only interested in men’s tennis].

“Hopefully they will really put enough money for women’s tennis and I’m praying for that. To any investor in Saudi, please remember that there are amazing women tennis players playing around the world and they need their chances to show. If you’re thinking of good investments, it’s a great investment there.”

Jabeur’s historic run to the Wimbledon final last year - she is the first Arab player in the Open Era and first African woman to make a major final - took the tennis world by storm and was the subject of one of the episodes in the Netflix docu-series 'Break Point'.

I was always rooting for her, she’s a wonderful person. She’ll open so many doors.
Venus Williams on Jabeur

She followed that up with a second consecutive appearance in a major final at the US Open a couple of months later. By the end of summer, she had earned countless new fans, including one legendary seven-time Grand Slam champion.

“Who didn’t follow her run last year here, and at the US open?” Venus Williams said of Jabeur on Friday.

“I was always rooting for her, she’s a wonderful person. She’ll open so many doors. And you can’t limit people to opening doors just for a certain type of people, she’s opening doors for everyone. That’s one thing about me and my career is I never wanted to be boxed. You can be an inspiration to every single person, man, woman, child and that’s what she is.”

By making it to the semi-finals at Wimbledon last year, Jabeur had already crossed a barrier no Arab-born player had ever crossed; the quarter-final stage so often proving the ultimate hurdle for her and her predecessors at the slams.

She and her husband / fitness trainer Karim Kamoun got “very emotional” watching the Netflix episode telling the story of her journey to the final at SW19 and her face lights up when she reflects on those magical two weeks.

“It was very tough to watch it, it was very emotional for me and Karim because we watched it together. We looked at each other and we both were crying. Unbelievable,” she says.

“I don’t think I could watch it again. But it did bring back a lot of great memories and maybe in a way I felt a little bit sorry for myself. Like I should have done something for that woman crying over there, maybe I should have won that final. It is what it is, everything happens for a reason and I’m trying to move on.

“The story is unbelievable. It’s like a movie that you wanted to finish with a happy ending. It wasn’t the case, but then you see all the support and how the Tunisians were supporting me, it did bring a lot of great memories. And that’s why if you know me, you know the story, you would feel emotional about that episode.”

Jabeur credits her love for playing on grass and being mentally prepared for the tournament for her great result here last year. She also says she drew energy from the massive support she received from the crowd, which allowed her to play freely, and flaunt her creative game.

Arabic chants were ringing around the All England Club throughout the fortnight, with many non-Tunisians learning the words and joining in on the celebrations after every match.

“Every time I did press here at the balcony they were shouting and singing. I remember just after the trophy ceremony, it felt like The Lion King, I put my trophy up and they were like screaming,” she recalls, referring to a famous scene from the popular animated movie.

“It was honestly so amazing. Hopefully we can see a lot of Arabs this year supporting us, me and Mayar, and that it will be a great tournament for both of us hopefully.”

Jabeur begins her campaign at the All England Club on Tuesday against Poland’s Magdalena Frech.

Having reached the finals in two of her last four Grand Slams, she is feeling the pressure to deliver and is hoping her sub-par results on grass coming in – she won just one match on the surface this year – will not stop her from performing well at her favourite major.

“I feel like people are expecting me to go to the final every time I play a Grand Slam, which is difficult,” she says.

“Not because I made two finals that means I should win a Grand Slam right now. But it’s a mindset, it’s a lot of things going on. You should know what’s going on with the players. I believe that people are judging more than they should be but again, I’m trying not to listen to everybody and also not to listen to anybody except my team around me.”

There may be a significant amount of pressure on her, but watching Jabeur prepare for these Championships, you can see she is still her playful, fun-loving self, joking around with her team and forcing her coach Issam Jellali to do push-ups on the practice court because he lost a bet during their hitting session.

“I’m very excited to just play and enjoy my time. There is a lot of pressure, yes. Maybe a lot more than I expected. It’s new for me and I’m trying to manage it. It’s part of tennis. I’m looking for Ons that is playing free on the court and enjoying the game no matter what the outcome will be,” she concludes.

Updated: July 03, 2023, 4:15 PM