Ons Jabeur: 'I love playing in Abu Dhabi - it feels like being back home'

Tunisian world No 6 talks to The National ahead of her debut appearance at the Mubadala Abu Dhabi Open

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It’s a good job Ons Jabeur likes to keep herself busy. In the past few months, she’s released a documentary – to rave reviews – about her rollercoaster 2023 season, penned a historic deal with Saudi apparel brand Kayanee, and had a new tennis season to prepare for.

“Honestly, it’s a pleasure. I like to keep myself and my team busy, so it’s nice to have all these things,” Jabeur told The National when asked how she balances it all. “I feel spoilt and happy, and valued with my new sponsorship with Kayanee. I’m happy to be starting the new season and be able to play well, so I’m really motivated to have a good season on tour.”

Having such a full plate is a natural consequence of Jabeur’s enduring star power, both in tennis and beyond, in the Arab region and around the world.

Her partnership with Kayanee is the first of its kind, Jabeur opting to shun the apparel giants to help build something from the ground up. In many ways, it’s a reflection of Jabeur’s trailblazing career, which saw her take an early decision to be based in Tunisia and build a Tunisian team around her, instead of taking the more proven path to Europe or the United States.

That career decision has more than paid off. Jabeur has been a permanent fixture in the WTA Tour’s top 10 for the past three seasons – reaching a career-high No 2 – and collected five titles, including the prestigious Madrid Masters. There has also been the highs of reaching three Grand Slam finals – and the subsequent lows of finishing runner-up each time.

All these achievements, and many more besides, represent significant milestones for a female Arab athlete and have made Jabeur an inspiration to millions. Yet her universal popularity is based as much on her character as her on-court accomplishments. Her humility, charm, and wit make Jabeur more relatable than the average superstar athlete; the trappings of fame, fortune, and adoration have changed her not one jot.

Supported passionately by flag-waving Tunisians and fans of all nationalities across the globe, that level of support reaches an entirely new level when Jabeur competes in the region.

“I honestly feel loved everywhere I go but this [region] I feel there are more Tunisians and Arabs here, so it feels special,” she said. “So even if fans want to support the other player, [my fans] always get behind me.”

That support is expected to be out in full force this week when Jabeur competes for the first time at the Mubadala Abu Dhabi Open – the first tournament of the expanded Middle East swing which will then make stops in Doha and Dubai.

She was meant to headline last year’s inaugural event but was forced to withdraw after a serious health scare in Australia. 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 Jabeur’s documentary, This is Me.

While making her tournament debut in Abu Dhabi, Jabeur does have experience of the Zayed Sports City Stadium Court having competed twice in the Mubadala World Tennis Championship exhibition event at the same venue.

“I’m not that neutral in this but I love to be back here. It feels like being back home,” Jabeur, 29, said. “I’ve twice played exhibitions here and it will be my first time playing here on the WTA Tour, but it feels special. I’m looking forward to playing the full [Middle East] swing because last year I was injured and couldn’t play. The next three weeks will feel like I’m playing in Tunisia.”

Jabeur revealed in her documentary that an enlarged nodule was obstructing her airway and preventing oxygen from reaching her lungs. She needed surgery to reduce the size of the nodule and was sidelined for five weeks, thus missing the entire Middle East swing.

Reflecting on that time from 12 months ago, Jabeur admitted she faced unique challenges but has taken important lessons from the experience.

“It was a difficult time,” she said. “I’m usually quite tough on myself and try not to make things more dramatic than they are. But sometimes it is what it is. I’m lucky I had my team around me and had the time to allow my body to rest.”

Among the lessons she’s learned is to listen closely to her body and therefore be more selective with her schedule when necessary. The tennis season is notoriously gruelling, lasting up to 11 months, taking in dozens of countries, and racking up thousands of air miles.

Jabeur has already put that into action this year. She chose to forgo all warm-up tournaments ahead of the Australian Open, opting instead to prioritise practice. In the short-term, some may argue that it was a decision that didn’t pay off – Jabeur was comfortably beaten in the second round in Melbourne – but the Tunisian is taking a bigger picture view.

“I’ve learned a lot over the years. I think three years ago I would not have made that decision,” she said. “I would have been hungry, and maybe a bit crazy, to play a lot of tournaments. I’m glad I’m making these decisions now. I’m listening to my body more right now and it’s helping me so much.

“I just feel I need more matches to be ready for the match conditions but overall, I feel good,” Jabeur added. “I just need to be patient to get my level right. I didn’t play any tournaments [before Australian Open] because last season was very long and I feel I might not be able to last the full season if I play too many tournaments, so I preferred to rest.”

Sufficiently rested, Jabeur begins her Abu Dhabi campaign with a blockbuster match against Emma Raducanu in the second round. As one of the top four seeds, the world No 6 received a first-round bye.

While Jabeur is obviously targeting success this week, there is no surprise what her ultimate aim is for this season having come so close to major glory at the US Open and twice at Wimbledon.

“I’m still going for that Grand Slam,” she said. “It’s not a secret anymore! I think everybody knows that.”

Updated: February 06, 2024, 10:29 AM