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28.01.2020 Africa

Battling Jabeur sets new benchmark for Arab tennis

By Kaouther LARBI
Ons Jabeur became the first player from the Arab world to reach the last eight of a Grand Slam tournament when she lost to Sofia Kenin in Melbourne.  By DAVID GRAY (AFP)
LISTEN JAN 28, 2020
Ons Jabeur became the first player from the Arab world to reach the last eight of a Grand Slam tournament when she lost to Sofia Kenin in Melbourne. By DAVID GRAY (AFP)

A straight sets defeat at the hands of Sofia Kenin on Tuesday was hardly the script that Ons Jabeur deserved but the Tunisian's passage to the quarter-finals of the Australian Open is already one of the stories of the tournament.

The 25-year-old, who will break into the world's top 50 after this run, saw off Johanna Konta and Caroline Garcia before putting an end to former champion Caroline Wozniacki's glittering career.

Victory over Wang Qiang in the fourth round made Jabeur the first player from the Arab world ever to reach the last eight of a Grand Slam in the Open era.

"I think I proved that I can be in the quarter-finals in a Grand Slam, even if I have a lot of things to improve, probably physically and mentally some stuff, for sure," Jabeur said after her 6-4 6-4 defeat to Kenin.

"I proved to myself that I could do a lot of great things. I'm happy that I played this way. I know sometimes I'm hard on myself, but I think I could do better, especially with the moments where it's kind of tough and stressful.

"With more experience, I will be able to handle the pressure better."

Her exploits went further than the established tennis world, hitting the headlines at home - where sporting infatuation has largely been restricted to football - and evincing a phone call of support from the Tunisian president Kais Saied who described her as "an example for women and young people".

"Every swing of her racket honours the Tunisian flag," he said.

Coffee at Roland Garros

Ons Jabeur became the first player from the Arab world to reach the last eight of a Grand Slam when she beat Wang Qiang in Melbourne.  By Greg Wood (AFP) Ons Jabeur became the first player from the Arab world to reach the last eight of a Grand Slam when she beat Wang Qiang in Melbourne. By Greg Wood (AFP)

It is all a long way from the small town of Hammam Sousse, near the seaside resort of Sousse, where Jabeur first picked up a racket at the age of three.

After a stint at a club, she joined a tennis promotion centre at her school run by Nabil Mlika who coached her from a four-year-old up to 13.

"Ons stood out above all for her talent and her desire to win," Mlika told AFP.

As a 10-year-old, her sights were already set on some lofty goals.

"Several times she told her mother: 'One day I will get you a coffee at Roland Garros'," says Mlika.

"I took it as a bit of a joke but it seems she was very serious. It's magical."

The next generation of Tunisian players practise in Tunis.  By FETHI BELAID (AFP) The next generation of Tunisian players practise in Tunis. By FETHI BELAID (AFP)

At the time her club had no facilities which meant training on the courts of the neighbouring hotels. Today the kids gather in the afternoons on 10 courts, the name of Ons Jabeur on every young player's lips.

Aged 12, the prodigy joined the best athletes in the country at the sports school of El Menzah in Tunis.

"Ons had an exceptional technical gift," says the former technical director of the Tunisian federation Hichem Riani.

"She was very lively, dynamic, friendly and sociable with a great sense of humour."

Her former colleague Mehdi Abid remembers a child who, having always dominated other girls, loved to train with boys.

"Once, she participated in a boys' tournament and won matches, which demoralised some players, annoyed to be beaten by a girl," says Mehdi.

Grand Slam breakthrough

Ons Jabeur (right) beat future Olympic gold medallist Monica Puig in the junior final at Roland Garros in 2011.  By JACQUES DEMARTHON (AFP) Ons Jabeur (right) beat future Olympic gold medallist Monica Puig in the junior final at Roland Garros in 2011. By JACQUES DEMARTHON (AFP)

In 2011, in the shadow of the Jasmine Revolution that brought democracy to Tunisia, the 16-year-old Jabeur won the junior championship at the French Open, a victory that remains her "best memory in tennis".

She was the first North African winner of a junior Grand Slam.

The coffee tasted good.

Six years later, she distinguished herself again on Parisian clay, becoming the first woman from an Arab country to qualify for the third round of a Grand Slam.

She had to do it the hard way, beating the Slovak Dominika Cibulkova who was ranked seventh in the world at the time.

Now her Australian odyssey made Jabeur the first Arab player to reach the last eight of a major. Egyptian, Betsy Abbas, reached the quarters at Roland Garros in 1960 but that was before the Open era.

Jabeur left Tunisia when she was 16 but she was back home to prepare for Melbourne alongside her coach Issam Jalleli and her husband and fitness coach Karim Kamoun.

She is hoping that her success will inspire a new generation of tennis players.

"Ons represents all of Africa, and personally, it inspires me a lot," says 17-year-old Elyes Marouani.

"What she has achieved pushes me to work more and has taught me never to give up."

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