RIYADH: In her home country of Tunisia, they call her “Wazeerat Al Sa’ada” or “Minister of Happiness,” and with good reason.
As Ons Jabeur on Monday celebrated becoming the first Arab tennis player to enter the world’s top 10 after moving to No. 8 in the Women’s Tennis Association rankings, her hordes of fans were feeling like they too had a reason to dream big.
Supporters of the 27-year-old throughout the Arab world have been setting their alarms for all hours to follow her recent matches in the Indian Wells tournament, where she reached the biggest semi-final of her career and secured her top 10 debut.
Amid a turbulent political climate in Tunisia, Jabeur has given her compatriots “a reason to smile” – as one Twitter user put it – and she has proved to herself, and everyone, that an Arab player can indeed join the sport’s elite at the very top.
Breaking new ground for Arab tennis, she does not just have the backing of fans from the Middle East and North Africa region; she has been embraced, both figuratively and literally, by the sport she has dedicated more than two decades of her life to.
Speaking on the Tennis Channel Live podcast on Friday, her idol, former world No. 1 Andy Roddick, said: “Ons Jabeur is quickly becoming one of my favorites in the world to watch, she’s just amazing, and maybe the most hugged player on tour; every single time she shakes a hand, people hug her, she must be an amazing person too.”
American Roddick is not wrong. Jabeur has won over fans with her exciting brand of tennis that features incredible variety, and she has also won over the locker room by being one of the friendliest and funniest players on tour.
The moment she won her Indian Wells quarter-final and guaranteed her place among the world’s top 10, social media timelines were flooded with heartfelt messages of congratulations from her peers as well as from legends of the sport.
From Billie Jean King to Martina Navratilova and Chris Evert to Tracy Austin, Jabeur’s historic achievement did not go unnoticed by a host of tennis greats.
Former world No. 1 Andy Murray shared the news on Twitter with the caption, “that’s very cool.”
Fellow players such as ex-US Open champion Sloane Stephens, Australian Open runner-up Jennifer Brady, Indian trail blazer Sania Mirza, four-time Grand Slam winner Kim Clijsters, and many more celebrated Jabeur online, while former world No. 1 Victoria Azarenka gushed over her during a press conference on Friday.
The two-time major champion said: “She’s my dream player to play. I’m such a huge fan of her. I think she’s amazing. The history that she’s making in the part of the world where sports are not necessarily that accessible; I just can’t wait to see how much further she can go.
“Obviously she’s an incredible player. The improvement she has done throughout, I wouldn’t necessarily only talk this year, but the last couple years, to really step up her game, improve her fitness level. I’m a huge fan. I’m just fan-girling here completely,” Azarenka added.
The huge reaction to her latest feat has taken Jabeur by surprise, and it provided a welcome boost in her quest for further glory.
“It means a lot. I honestly did not expect Andy Murray or Navratilova or Billie Jean King to tweet about me. It’s unbelievable,” said Jabeur, who picked up her maiden WTA title earlier this year in Birmingham, before becoming the first Arab woman to make the Wimbledon quarter-finals in July.
“It just shows how important it is to me to achieve this. Being recognized by legends, honestly, it just gives me even more the power to work harder and be like them one day maybe, a Grand Slam champion.”
With the release of the new rankings on Monday, Jabeur eclipsed Morocco’s Younes El-Aynaoui, whose career-high mark of No. 14 was the highest ever reached by an Arab tennis player before the crafty Tunisian came along.
The now-retired El-Aynaoui has been following Jabeur’s career ever since she won the Roland-Garros (French Open) junior title as a 16-year-old in 2011.
El-Aynaoui told Arab News: “That was already an amazing achievement. We have to give her a lot of credit because to be very strong very young and then to wait that long to win again, to perform well … when you win the French Open juniors, everybody is expecting you to break into the top pretty fast, but it took her a while; she finally found her stability, maybe with the family, the husband, the coach.
“It’s just great to see her playing well tournament after tournament, it’s almost two years now she’s really on the top, and I think also there’s a big opportunity in women’s tennis today,” he said.
El-Aynaoui pointed out that Jabeur’s “patience” and “perseverance” stood out most to him when he looked at her journey and he hoped her success would inspire a new generation of young players from the Arab world and give a big boost to women’s sport in the region.
“We saw the last US Open, the two women’s finalists were newcomers. I think it’s a good time for Ons. Being top 10 is already amazing, but I would love to see her, why not, winning a slam or runner-up in a slam, that would be even greater I think,” he added.
With 48 victories under her belt in 2021, Jabeur has won more matches than any other player on the WTA tour so far this season and is in the running for a highly coveted qualification spot in next month’s WTA finals in Guadalajara, where the world’s top eight are set to compete.
Should she qualify, she would become the first Arab player to make it to a season-ending championships and Jabeur is determined to write one more chapter in the history books before she wraps up her year.
“Top 10 I know is just the beginning. I know I deserve this place, but I want to prove that I deserve to be here, I deserve to be one of the top 10 players,” she said.
The north African will be competing in Moscow this week and hopes to punch her ticket to the season finale.
She noted that it had been a stressful few weeks knowing she had a real chance of qualifying for the finals, while also acknowledging there was a lengthy list of players fighting for the same goal.
“I’ve never been in this situation; I never played this long; never been in the top 10 before. It’s a lot of things happening at the same time. This is what I’ve worked for, this is what I want to believe, to achieve.
“I finally, with maturity and enough experience, am accepting that this kind of pressure is a privilege, it’s a pleasure to have it,” she added.
Jabeur is not just managing the pressure of competition, she is also carrying the hopes of an entire region on her back, and she highlighted how tough it had been trying to carve a path for herself coming from a country such as Tunisia that had not produced top champions in the past.
“It is much different to come from my country than being American or French or Australian. They have not just the example of seeing players playing in front of you, they have more tennis clubs, even more tournaments.
“I’ve been rejected by sponsors because of where I come from, which is so not fair. I didn’t understand why before. I accepted it. I dealt with it. I am really proud of the person I have become today, just not relying on others.
“It gave me the courage to continue and achieve my goals, and I’m in the top 10 today,” she said.
El-Aynaoui said being the only person from a country or region on tour could have its advantages, as hitting a new milestone or pulling off a historic feat gained more attention.
“I wouldn’t call it pressure, I would call it motivation, when you know you’re playing and behind you there is a whole country and so many people supporting you, it gives you wings,” he added.
Jabeur is embracing the pressure and believes it will prepare her for even greater things down the road.
“I’m trying so hard to calm myself down and handle all this stress because I want to be a Grand Slam champion. If I want to do that, then I need to go through this. Hopefully I’ll go through this without having a heart attack,” she said jokingly.
Judging by how her career has unfolded so far, it is fair to assume the Minister of Happiness will be just fine.