After a long injury-plagued season that was one of the toughest of her career, Tunisian tennis star Ons Jabeur is looking to finish 2023 on a high with a positive showing at the prestigious WTA Finals in Cancun.
Physical problems hampered Jabeur throughout most of the year, limiting her ability to train consistently and compete at a high level, week in, week out.
The 29-year-old made her WTA Finals debut 12 months ago on the back of a stellar 2022 campaign that saw her rise to a career-high No 2 in the world.
A maiden WTA 1000 title triumph in Madrid, along with two Grand Slam finals reached at Wimbledon and the US Open, saw Jabeur make history for Tunisia, Africa and the Arab world, and she cemented her place amongst the game’s elite by qualifying as the No 2 seed for the season finale that features the top eight players in the world.
This year has been a different story. Health issues and numerous injuries – including knee, calf, back, ankle and wrist according to her coach Issam Jellali – have sidelined her on multiple occasions during the season and she punched her ticket to the WTA Finals just three weeks before tournament kick-off, ranked No 6 in the Race to Cancun.
Despite her problems, she still managed to pick up a WTA 500 title in Charleston, and a WTA 250 trophy in Ningbo, while also reaching the Wimbledon final – third at a Grand Slam – and the Roland Garros quarter-finals.
“Honestly it means a lot to qualify for the WTA Finals again,” said Jabeur, who begins her campaign in Cancun against US Open champion Coco Gauff on Monday.
“I’m just happy because this season it was unexpected that I qualified. It was a little bit stressful at the end but I don’t think it was as stressful as the year that I didn’t qualify, 2021. I’m pretty excited and hopefully I have much more experience than the last time I made it.”
Jabeur has been one of the most consistent players on tour over the last three seasons, amassing a 130-51 win-loss record since the start of 2021. She lifted five WTA trophies within that period – on all three surfaces, clay, grass and hard court – and made three major finals. With little time to rest and regularly going deep in tournaments over an extended period, Jabeur’s body has taken a beating, she tried to manage it all year.
“For sure it’s the accumulation of playing good the last couple of years; it’s not new injuries, they’re old ones that I keep treating and treating. But you know the level is high, the scheduling is not great, you travel all the time, you go from one continent to another in a matter of days, which is not great,” she said.
“And to be honest with you 2024 will be s******* than this year, so it’s going to be tougher on all the players and hopefully we can get through it, or the WTA should find a solution for us.”
It was her title in Ningbo four weeks ago that pretty much secured Jabeur’s place in the WTA Finals – a tournament she entered at the very last minute as a wildcard. She had to travel for two days from Mexico to France to China to make it there in time and it ultimately proved to be worth it.
There have been many lessons learnt for Jabeur in 2023, from handling the heartbreak of a second Wimbledon final defeat to dealing with the pressure of being the world No 2. But it’s the injuries that provided the biggest learning opportunity for her.
“I was very patient with the injuries really, I’m not someone that is patient, and Adel (Aref, her agent) could confirm that right away. He’s laughing,” she said, referring to her fellow Tunisian, who was standing nearby.
“So the fact that I was trying to be patient and just, I kind of let go and accepted that I have no control over what’s happening, I think that’s something that I learnt about myself. I think that’s one thing that really got stuck in my head and it’s something I did that I’ve never done before.”
Away from the court, Jabeur has been busy all season, joining the Professional Tennis Players Association (PTPA), an body founded by Novak Djokovic and Vasek Pospisil, which describes itself as the “the leading advocate for professional tennis players worldwide. We serve to protect and advance players’ wellbeing on and off court”.
Jabeur is typically outspoken and believes in voicing her opinion about matters close to her heart. As the Israel-Hamas war erupted, she posted a message on her Instagram stories calling for peace, denouncing all attacks on innocent civilians, and shedding light on the suffering of Palestinians.
“What Palestinians have been going through during the last 75 years is indescribable. What innocent civilians are going through is indescribable; no matter what their religion is, or what their origin is. Violence will never bring peace. I cannot stand with violence but I also cannot stand with people having their lands taken,” wrote Jabeur, who went on to emphasise the importance of understanding context.
She concluded her post by saying: “Peace is what everyone needs and deserves. Stop the violence and #FreePalestine.”
As a response, the Israeli Tennis Association filed a complaint against Jabeur to the ITF and WTA.
“What I wrote in my post on Instagram is what I support, and the biggest thing I believe in is peace,” Jabeur told The National.
“I’m very sad for the innocent people that are getting killed every day and I wish the world would react and end this war.
“They filed the complaint to the WTA and I’m aware of it, they told me about it. But I didn’t say anything wrong. I just shared my opinion and I stayed within the rules. I actually was surprised they complained about it. I don’t even know why. My message was really peaceful.”
Jabeur has also spoken about her motivation to join Djokovic and Co. on the executive committee of the PTPA, and what she hopes to achieve with the group.
“I’m someone that really wants to help other players because I feel the love for this sport, it deserves much better,” said the Tunisian.
“This sport should give the opportunity to everyone that wants to start playing the game. When Novak and Vasek talked to me and explained to me what PTPA does, I was kind of new, I was just getting into the meetings, learning new stuff, and I feel like I learnt so many things about tennis that I didn’t even know before. Which is something I think really helped me and my confidence as well, because I feel more confident speaking about a lot of things.
“Also seeing Novak all the time and seeing his knowledge about so many things outside tennis, that really also helped me a lot. I think we’re in the process of changing a little bit the sport in a better way and that’s the goal; to really protect the players 100 per cent and protect everyone, not just No 1 or No 2, to hopefully help as many players as we can.”
In Cancun, Jabeur has landed in the same group as four-time major champion Iga Swiatek, American teen sensation Gauff and Wimbledon winner Marketa Vondrousova. She hopes her experience from playing the round-robin format on her tournament debut last year could help her cause this time around, but she’s also eyeing some much-needed R&R once the season is officially over.
Her pre-season will include an exhibition match to be played against world No 1 Aryna Sabalenka in Saudi Arabia, as part of the Riyadh Season Tennis Cup, which also features a clash between Djokovic and Carlos Alcaraz.
“That’s going to be nice because I can play one match and also be in a country I want to discover more and hopefully bring tennis more there,” said Jabeur, who is a strong proponent of the WTA’s potential involvement with Saudi Arabia.
“Hopefully (the WTA goes there). Of course I’m one of the players that will push to go there. I feel this country deserves a chance to have sports events; they started of course with football and now I feel like tennis could be there. It’s not about the money, for me it’s about giving a chance to younger women, or any women to practice sports and discover amazing things.”