Ons Jabeur opens up about health scare and Wimbledon pain in new documentary

Tunisian star reveals mental and physical struggles during challenging 2023

Tunisia's Ons Jabeur will be seen in action during the Australian Open. Reuters
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“My biggest strength? I think… I think smiling. I like to think that my smile is contagious,” ponders Ons Jabeur at the start of This is Me, a Tod original documentary that chronicles her history-making journey in tennis.

It’s not just Jabeur’s smile that is contagious. When she cried on Wimbledon centre court last year after losing a second straight final there, most of the people watching around the world cried with her.

The Tunisian wears her heart on her sleeve and has a natural ability to convey raw and honest emotion both on the court and off it. She does just that throughout This is Me, which drops on Tod.tv on Sunday, January 7.

In the 90-minute documentary, Jabeur opens up about her mental and physical struggles in tennis, and makes some stunning revelations, including a serious health scare she suffered at the Australian Open 12 months ago.

After losing to Marketa Vondrousova in the second round in Melbourne, Jabeur required medical assistance as she turned blue and struggled to breathe.

“I thought she’s gonna die,” said her coach Issam Jellali in the documentary.

Jabeur explained that an enlarged nodule was obstructing her airway, preventing oxygen from reaching her lungs.

She ended up undergoing surgery to reduce the size of the nodule and was sidelined for five weeks, missing the entire Middle East swing, where she was scheduled to play in Abu Dhabi, Doha and Dubai.

“For once in my life I had to put myself in front of everyone, my health in front of everyone. That’s something I don’t think I’ve done a lot in my career,” said Jabeur.

With insight from the legendary Billie Jean King, former world No 1 Naomi Osaka, ex-Wimbledon finalist Nick Kyrgios, and Tunisian star actor Dhafer L’Abidine, the documentary delves deep into Jabeur’s role as a trailblazer for Arabs and Africans, and the pressure that comes with that.

Jabeur reflected on her upbringing and how people laughed at her when she said she was going to win Roland Garros one day (she won the junior title there in 2011 at 16 years of age).

And while the Tunisian went on to make history by reaching three grand slam finals and rising to a career-high world No 2, she admits she still struggles with her self-belief, noting how all those naysayers she encountered from a young age affected her on a subconscious level.

“People laughed and maybe that made me doubt what I wanted to do as well,” she confessed. “And I do believe there is a lot of unconscious things in there that I’m working on and I’m still working on and I believe that I can do better in this, but I don’t have a magic stick that I [can use and be like], ‘Believe in yourself’.”

The documentary also broaches several personal topics like Jabeur’s marriage to Karim Kamoun, a former fencer who later became her fitness trainer, menstruation and how it affects female athletes, and why she turned down offers to compete under a different flag.

“I refused because I knew part of me playing, part of Ons Jabeur, is being Tunisian and that blood will help me win and make history,” she explained.

The most revealing part of the documentary revolves around Jabeur’s run to a second Wimbledon final, and the gut-wrenching defeat she suffered to Vondrousova.

Back home, the producers asked Jabeur to rewatch the final, which ultimately proved too painful as she got up and left the room before the last game.

Jabeur wanted to win Wimbledon so badly, she photoshopped herself with the trophy and saved the image on her phone.

“The day of the final, doing my routine with Melanie [Maillard, my psychologist], I told her, I’m too stressed, I can’t, this is too much, maybe I can say I was having a panic attack,” said Jabeur.

The stakes were incredibly high for the Tunisian, who was trying to become the first Arab and first African woman to lift a grand slam trophy.

“We hope that she changes the perception of how people see the Arab world, a place capable of producing champions and winning trophies. There isn’t anything impossible for Arabs,” said her father Ridha.

“She’s got that responsibility to show an example to 600 million people. And those 600 million people are behind that TV watching. When she steps into that court, she needs to deliver for those people,” added her agent Adel Aref.

“To get to back-to-back Wimbledon finals is something that I think people don’t give her enough credit for,” said Naomi Osaka.

Jabeur explained how her heart was racing on court during the final, and how she felt the points were going way too fast. She was the favourite entering the clash, and she believed she could win, but Jabeur confessed that something bigger than the title was on the line.

“People think I have this pressure because I want to do it for other people, which is not true. There was a personal thing going on there. I win that [final] I could have a baby right away. And that dream faded. I was haunted by fear. After all I’m just a human being, what can I do more?” said Jabeur, who has long dreamt of growing her family with Karim.

“It was the toughest loss of my career because emotionally it destroyed me, not only winning Wimbledon, but the idea of having a baby just vanished with the trophy of Wimbledon. So I think that’s what killed me and Karim, we were crying like babies.”

On Centre Court after the loss, Jabeur sat at her bench and began typing a message on her phone. She wasn’t texting someone else, she was writing an angry message to herself, lamenting the missed opportunity.

“I was really tough with myself there,” she conceded.

As the documentary proceeds to detail the remainder of Jabeur’s 2023 season, it becomes evident how the 29-year-old’s biggest battle is with herself.

In a poignant closing scene, Jabeur is filmed on a tennis court where she is rallying with another Jabeur on the opposite side of the net, symbolising her inner struggle to fully believe in herself.

“There’s no reason she can’t win a major, I can tell you that,” says Billie Jean King.

Jabeur, who spent the last week training at the Aviation Club in Dubai, will kick off her 2024 campaign at the Australian Open, which begins on January 15.

“It scares me so much to go back and play a final, but I know I have to do this,” she concludes.

“I want to do bigger things than just a grand slam, but it will be a shame, a missing piece if I don’t make that one. I have to [win a slam], I have no choice, maybe it’s my life’s mission to do it.”

In the documentary, Jabeur lays bare her strengths and her weaknesses. She acknowledges how far she’s come but doesn’t shy away from analysing her shortcomings. She believes in accountability, and is willing to keep searching within herself to figure out what is stopping her from achieving her biggest dreams.

In her eyes, she still has work to do and goals to conquer, but to many watching, she has already accomplished the impossible.

“She’s an inspiration because when you see Ons and what she did in tennis, then you can replicate that in other fields. Yes, she did it in tennis, it was very hard, it’s quite mission impossible. But now maybe I can do it in something else that no one else did in a different field. And I think that’s the most important thing she gives to people,” says Dhafer L’Abidine.

This is Me, a Tod original, will be available for streaming on Tod.tv from January 7

Updated: January 07, 2024, 3:59 AM