Olympic Dreams: tennis trailblazer Ons Jabeur has medals on her mind as she gears up for Tokyo

Fun-loving Tunisian is already the most successful Arab player in WTA history and is now looking to break into the world top 10 and make her mark at the Summer Games

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Spend a few minutes observing Ons Jabeur navigating the players’ lounge at a tournament and you’ll quickly understand why she is considered one of the funniest and most sociable personalities on tour.

"It's funny, whenever I bump into her in the halls or anything, she always surprises me with something," four-time Grand Slam champion Naomi Osaka said of the charismatic Tunisian.

Ahead of their Australian Open third-round meeting last month, Jabeur joked that she had asked Osaka for a contract with North Carolina Courage, the soccer team she co-owns.

“I don't think I have that much jurisdiction, but she's super talented in everything she does, so I'm sure if she really wanted to go for it, she could,” was Osaka’s gracious response.

Jabeur gets along with pretty much everyone. From cracking jokes with the barista at the players’ restaurant, to playing hide and seek with the kids of her fellow competitors, the 26-year-old brings a lighthearted energy to the travelling circus that is the WTA Tour – a quality that is also reflected in her playful game style on court.

While preparing for the Qatar Open in Doha this week, the 31st-ranked Jabeur hit the practice court with former world No 13 Elena Vesnina who is making a comeback after going on maternity leave in 2018.

Jabeur has already bonded with Vesnina’s daughter and is thrilled to see the Russian make an unexpected return to the tour.

“I made a deal with Vesnina for babysitting against giving me information about what she saw in my matches while she was commentating during her break,” smiled Jabeur.

Jabeur is the most successful Arab player in WTA history. She is the first Arab woman to reach a Grand Slam quarter-final, the first to reach a WTA final, the first to crack the top 50, the first to win a junior Grand Slam; her list of achievements is extensive.

Jabeur and Vesnina's daughter - Credit Vesnina's instagram
Ons Jabeur and Elena Vesnina's daughter in Doha. Courtesy vesnushka86 on Instagram

This summer, she is poised to make a third appearance at the Olympic Games, and her expectations are significantly higher than they were in 2016 or 2012.

Jabeur’s previous Olympic participations came courtesy of an ITF quota placement but this time, the Tunisian heads to Tokyo as a top-30 player – one who features regularly in the latter stages of tournaments.

"I'm aiming bigger this year, hopefully. Before, it was an experience going to this kind of big tournament and this year I'm going with a goal, I'm going for the medal," Jabeur told The National.

Despite losing in the first round on her two previous attempts at the Gamess, Jabeur has plenty to be proud of.

On the grass courts of Wimbledon at London 2012, ranked 297 in the world, a 17-year-old Jabeur took the first set off of German world No 17 Sabine Lisicki before succumbing in three sets. Lisicki made the Wimbledon final a year later.

In Rio 2016, ranked 187, the North African grabbed a one-set lead over a 27th-ranked Daria Kasatkina but ultimately bowed out.

One of her most memorable experiences at the Games, though, happened away from the tennis court.

“In 2016 I met Kobe Bryant; I took a picture with him,” Jabeur recalls. “Tunisia played against America in basketball; of course I know all the Tunisian guys, and one of them asked me to take the ball to the locker room of the American players and make them all sign the ball.

“I was sneaking, because I didn’t have the right to go there and I got a picture with Kobe Bryant, and also met LeBron [James].

“It was amazing because Tunisia was winning at the beginning, four points difference, then they crushed us, but it’s OK, it was a great experience. Usually we don’t have the accreditation to go to different sports, but for some reason I got tickets and I went there.

“I was outside Team USA’s locker room. I gave the ball to the coach or one of the guys there and asked him if all the players could sign it and I waited for like two, three minutes. There was a lady like obsessed with me, I was like, ‘Seriously wait, I’m just going to get the ball and get out of here’. The Tunisian basketball team owe me big time.”

Was she tempted to keep the ball to herself? “I was too honest at the time to keep it,” she added with a laugh.

Jabeur admits she feels a "different kind of pressure" when she's competing at the Olympics. Tennis players at the Games do not earn prize money nor ranking points, which Jabeur says makes the Olympics special.

LONDON, ENGLAND - JULY 30:  Ons Jabeur of Tunisia competes during her Women's Singles Tennis second round match against Sabine Lisicki of Germany on Day 3 of the London 2012 Olympic Games at the All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club in Wimbledon on July 30, 2012 in London, England.  (Photo by Clive Brunskill/Getty Images)
Ons Jabeur during her defeat against Sabine Lisicki at the London 2012 Olympics. Getty

“I like the Olympic Village thing, I like the fact that there are so many athletes sharing the same passion. Each day all these buses are going to different sites, different sports,” she explains.

As a pioneer for Arab and North African women, Jabeur is accustomed to the burden of representing an entire region on the global stage, and she is happy to take on that responsibility, even more so at the Olympics.

This summer, she'll be joined by another Arab in the women's singles draw as Egypt's Mayar Sherif looks set to make her Olympic debut in Tokyo. The Egyptian up-and-comer is on the cusp of breaking the top 100, which would make her just the third Arab woman in history to do so.

“It’s amazing to see two Arab women in the main draw. It feels amazing to have another one from the Arab world to talk to in Arabic on tour. We can support each other.

"Honestly, I hope we can inspire a lot of the young generation, we can tell them that it’s possible, we’re here, we made it, come on you guys, you can make it too."

Indeed, Jabeur's rise has been inspirational. After making headlines back home for lifting the 2011 Roland Garros junior trophy at the age of 16, the Tunisian initially struggled to replicate that success on the senior circuit. With no proper guidance and with no proven template to follow, Jabeur had to carve her own path until she finally cracked the top 100 in 2017.

“I would say that when I was in juniors I messed up a little bit. I was trying always to be that independent woman that tries to do everything, I was curious to know everything. I was looking around all the time, trying to understand the tour. I would say I was lost for a while, I didn’t know where to go sometimes.”

Jabeur has made a significant leap in the past two years, and would have been ranked 14 in the world at the end of 2020 had the rankings not been frozen due to the pandemic.

Now ranked 31 and rising, Jabeur tips her hat to those who have helped her along the way, and hopes to pay it forward by helping the upcoming generation of Arab players.

Dubai, United Arab Emirates - Reporter: John McAuley: Ons Jabeur celebrates a point in the game between Ons Jabeur and Alison Riske in the Dubai Duty Free Tennis Championship. Monday, February 17th, 2020. Dubai Duty Free Tennis stadium, Dubai. Chris Whiteoak / The National
Ons Jabeur during her victory over Alison Riske at the 2020 Dubai Duty Free Tennis Championships. Chris Whiteoak / The National

“I was thinking about it yesterday, and it was very nice because I practiced with Vesnina and I remember last time I had practiced with her I was honestly nobody on tour,” Jabeur told reporters in Doha this week.

“When I practiced with her yesterday it was amazing because I am now a different player, I improved. When she was taking her break she was commentating my matches and she told me how much I’ve improved, which is amazing because I always looked up to players like Vesnina.

“To see the change that happened [in my game] the last two, three years, it amazes me. I feel really blessed and if I can really help some players like other players helped me, I would be honoured to do that.”

Vesnina hasn't been the only one to notice Jabeur's progress. Her creative game that mixes flair with firepower makes her stand out, and she's drawn high praise from many top players in recent months.

“I always felt like watching her, she's a player that can do anything, and I always felt like she should be where she is now and even higher,” world No 2 Osaka of Jabeur.

“I think it's really nice to see her doing well, and I hope that she continues to do well, because for me I feel like she's one of those people that you just love to see grow. I just really like her and her personality. I think it's really good for the game.”

With a strong team around her and the belief that she belongs among the world’s best, Jabeur has set her sights on clinching a maiden WTA title this season, and is eyeing a spot in the top 10.

While some may shy away from publicly declaring such lofty goals, Jabeur believes in the value of vocalising her aspirations.

“If I say it, I put more pressure on myself, and I’m someone if I give my word I want to keep it,” she says. “It’s kind of a deal with myself, to not let down my team and if I say something, I want to achieve it. What’s the worst that could happen? I would be close and I will not do it but at least I want to have extra pressure to keep the goal.”