Olympic fallout: Are young Saudi footballers being hampered by SPL’s 7-foreigner rule?

Olympic fallout: Are young Saudi footballers being hampered by SPL’s 7-foreigner rule?
Few Saudi strikers can hope to have the impact that likes of Bafetimbi Gomis, center, and other overseas players have had in the Saudi Professional League. (AFP file photo)
Short Url
Updated 03 August 2021

Olympic fallout: Are young Saudi footballers being hampered by SPL’s 7-foreigner rule?

Olympic fallout: Are young Saudi footballers being hampered by SPL’s 7-foreigner rule?
  • Clubs in Kingdom continue to count on overseas players for goals, with negative consequences on Saudi U-23 team at Tokyo 2020

RIYADH: Now the Olympics football tournament is over, attention has quickly turned to the start of the new Saudi Professional League (SPL) season next week.

Take a quick look at the headlines and social media and there is not much being said about what happened in Japan as the young Falcons lost all three games at Tokyo 2020. But there are the usual significant number of reports and rumors as to which foreign stars are heading to the league. The two are connected, however.

There is no doubt that there are some top-class foreign players in Saudi Arabia who bring a lot to their clubs and the league. Stars such as French striker Bafetimbi Gomis and Syrian sharpshooter Omar Al-Somah light up the league on and off the pitch.

Looking ahead to the new season there will be speculation about whether Al-Hilal will make it three in a row or if Al-Ahli will return to the running, but there is one certainty: The top scorer next season will not be Saudi Arabian.

Saudi Arabia’s league is unusual in Asia in that it does not limit the number of foreign players to four in the way many do, with each club allowed to sign and field seven overseas footballers.

And it is no surprise that attackers from around the world are in demand. After all, scoring goals is the hardest thing in football to do, so why would clubs and coaches not look to import solutions?

Gomis, a powerful, skillful striker, fiery yet with ice-cool composure in the area, is one of the best center-forwards in Asia. He was the top scorer in the 2019 AFC Champions League as Al-Hilal picked up a third continental championship. Others played their part but the former French international made the difference at crucial times. The likes of Abderrazzak Hamdallah of Morocco and Cristian Guanca of Argentina were other stars last season.

It is not just the title-chasing clubs that have goal scorers from abroad. Swede Carlos Strandberg scored 16 goals, more than a third of Abha’s total in the SPL, and those strikes played a major part in the club staying up by a point.

In short, in Saudi Arabia, all the teams look to foreigners for goals. This can help the local defenders gain some vital experience in facing a variety of strikers from all over the world. For young center-backs there can be few better learning curves available than one which features clashes against the physical Gomis, the artful Guanca, and the single-minded Strandberg.

This attacking talent can flourish anywhere in the world and if any defender can learn to hold their own against them then they have nothing to fear and plenty to look forward to.

But what about the local strikers? There are consequences for this love of international attackers. Increasingly the home-grown forwards are getting fewer chances to develop. Just look at the goalscoring charts for last season; none of the top 10 were from Saudi Arabia. The highest-ranked was Hassan Al-Amri at No. 12 and seven of his 12 goals for Al-Qadisiyah came from the spot. In contrast, six of the most prolific 10 players in Japan were locals.

This is obviously a worry. If teams look overseas for striking talent, then there are fewer opportunities for locals.

At the Olympics, many hopes were placed on the shoulders of Abdullah Al-Hamdan who made headlines when signing for Al-Hilal from Al-Shabab in January. It was hoped that the 21-year-old was the answer to the search for the next Sami Al-Jaber. Yet the forward struggled to get into games in Japan, looked off the pace, and was easy for defenders to handle. That should not be a surprise given that he has been a bit-part player for Al-Hilal, playing a full league game just once since joining the club.

If he cannot get a run of games then he is unlikely to be able to make the difference against defenders from the Ivory Coast, Germany, and Brazil.

And if it was not tough enough for the player last season, Al-Hilal have added Moussa Marega from Porto. The 30-year-old Malian marksman scored plenty in Portugal and is likely to slot straight into the starting line-up when the new season kicks off.

So, what is a promising young striker such as Al-Hamdan to do? If he does not get much playing time, then he has to move but the same issues exist in other clubs in Saudi Arabia. Moving overseas may be the answer but is not an easy one, especially when Saudi strikers have little reputation internationally, partly due to the fact that they are squeezed out of their starting elevens at home.

Nobody could blame a coach for pushing a talented young player in Riyadh or Jeddah toward midfield or the wings. It is a vicious circle. While foreigners dominate the scoring charts, the demand for them will continue to rise. This reduces the chances for the locals; if they are not playing, they are not scoring, and so clubs continue to look overseas.

There is no easy answer or quick fix but reducing the number of imports from seven to four would be a step in the right direction.

Real Madrid star Benzema goes on trial in sextape case

Real Madrid star Benzema goes on trial in sextape case
Updated 18 October 2021

Real Madrid star Benzema goes on trial in sextape case

Real Madrid star Benzema goes on trial in sextape case
  • Benzema, 33, stands accused of helping a group of alleged blackmailers to approach Valbuena in an attempt to extort money
  • The case centres on the role that Benzema is suspected of playing in the murky affair six years ago

VERSAILLES, France: Real Madrid forward Karim Benzema goes on trial in France on Wednesday accused of complicity in the attempted blackmail of former international teammate Mathieu Valbuena in a case known as the “sextape affair.”
Benzema, 33, stands accused of helping a group of alleged blackmailers to approach Valbuena in an attempt to extort money. Four other men are also on trial.
The case cost both Benzema and 37-year-old Valbuena their place in the French national team, although Benzema was restored to the lineup for this year’s European championship.
The case centers on the role that Benzema is suspected of playing in the murky affair six years ago, which started when Valbuena handed his smartphone to Axel Angot, a man connected to footballing circles in the southern port city of Marseille, with the request to transfer its contents to a new device.
Angot, now on trial for breach of trust, came across sexually explicit footage on the phone involving Valbuena.
Prosecutors say he then explored ways — together with a friend, Mustapha Zouaoui — to approach Valbuena and threaten publication of the footage unless he paid them.
Valbuena received several calls in June 2015 threatening exposure of the footage, which he reported to police.
The blackmailers then went to former French international Djibril Cisse, who refused to act as their messenger, instead warning Valbuena of what was brewing.
Cisse, who played for Premier League club Liverpool during his career, was initially charged in the case, but later cleared.
What followed is an imbroglio involving several shadowy middlemen, one of whom turned out to be an undercover agent called “Luka” placed by police who were trying to get proof before taking action against the protagonists.
Eventually the presumed blackmailers went to one of Benzema’s old friends, Karim Zenati, who prosecutors say enlisted Benzema’s help to reach Valbuena.
On Oct 6, 2015, Benzema went to see Valbuena in his room at the French national team’s training center at Clairefontaine, west of Paris.
He told his teammate that he could introduce him to a “trustworthy person” to help him “manage” the possible publication of a compromising video.
In what Benzema later claimed was an attempt to help his teammate out of a difficult situation, he told him: “Be careful ‘Math’, these are very, very heavy criminals.”
Benzema then called his childhood friend Karim Zenati, who was by then acting as an intermediary for the alleged blackmailers and told him in a conversation wiretapped by police: “He’s not taking us seriously.”
Prosecutors say that the word “us” proves that Benzema saw himself as part of the blackmail scheme.
Valbuena said later that the conversation left him with the feeling that he was “being played for a fool.”
“If he doesn’t want us to handle this for him, he’ll have to deal with the piranhas,” Zenati said, claiming later that all he wanted to do was alert Valbuena to the existence of the video.
Benzema replied that “they will piss on him,” and in a subsequent conversation referred to Valbuena with a derogatory term for a homosexual, which he said later was meant “in a friendly way.”
The maximum sentence for complicity in attempted blackmail is five years in prison and a fine of 70,000 euros ($81,000).
Benzema has argued that the undercover police officer used dishonest methods to draw him into the affair.
It was unclear on Monday whether the striker, who is scheduled to play for Real Madrid against Shakhtar Donetsk in a Champions League match in Ukraine on Tuesday, will attend the trial. His lawyers did not respond to AFP’s requests for clarification.
Valbuena, who now plays for Greek club Olympiakos, will be present, his lawyer said.
The sextape case caused Benzema to be exiled from France’s national football team for years — a decision he called ‘racist’ — but the striker returned to “Les Bleus” this year in time for the European championship.
France coach Didier Deschamps said this month that “he’s no longer the same person, he’s matured.”
Benzema has scored a total of 243 goals for Real and remains a key part of their side.

Five talking points ahead of all-Saudi AFC Champions League semifinal between Al-Hilal and Al-Nassr

Five talking points ahead of all-Saudi AFC Champions League semifinal between Al-Hilal and Al-Nassr
Updated 18 October 2021

Five talking points ahead of all-Saudi AFC Champions League semifinal between Al-Hilal and Al-Nassr

Five talking points ahead of all-Saudi AFC Champions League semifinal between Al-Hilal and Al-Nassr
  • Teams meet in the most high profile Riyadh Derby in years on Tuesday with a place in Asia’s premier club competition up for grabs against either Pohang Steelers or Ulsan Horang-i from South Korea

On Tuesday, Al-Nassr and Al-Hilal meet in the semifinal of the AFC Champions League in Riyadh. Thanks to the fallout from the coronavirus disease pandemic, the game will be a one-legged affair instead of the usual two legs. This means the last four tie will be over on the night, and with the final also being held in the capital next month (against Pohang Steelers or Ulsan Horang-i from South Korea), this is a great opportunity for the continental championship to return to Saudi Arabia.

Here are five talking points ahead of this eagerly-awaited game:

1. Al-Nassr need to beat history to beat Al-Hilal

While this is a first ever meeting in Asia, there have been a number of knockout clashes between the two rivals over the years and Al-Hilal have usually come out on top.

One of the biggest non-league meetings between these two teams came back in the final of the 2015 King’s Cup. On that June day, Riyadh decamped to Jeddah and there were more than 60,000 packed into the newly-built King Abdullah Sports City Stadium. 

It was a tense affair that ended goalless after 90 minutes. Early in extra-time, Mohammad Al-Sahlawi put Al-Nassr ahead, and the Yellows were on course for the cup with the 120 minutes almost up. But then came a last-gasp equalizer from Mohammed Jahfali to send the Al-Hilal fans wild.

Both teams scored their first six penalties in the shootout. Salman Al-Faraj, the current Al-Hilal skipper, scored number seven but then Shaye Sharahili missed his, and that was that. Al-Hilal also beat their rivals in the 2020 King’s Cup final.

The pair have met in the Crown Prince Cup final twice, with one victory each. Al-Hilal also defeated Al-Nassr at the semifinal of the 1995 Arab Champions League and the final of the 2000 Arab Cup Winners Cup.

2. A Portuguese battle of wits and emotion

There has already been plenty of attention in Portugal paid to the quarterfinals of the Champions League due to the fact that two of their coaches are in charge of the Saudi pair. Al-Hilal hired Leonardo Jardim in June and Al-Nassr appointed Pedro Emanuel, a lesser-known coach, at the start of this month. 

It means a Portuguese head-to-head in the semifinal. Jardim has started to get to grips with this Al-Hilal team and is trying to get all of his attacking talent into a balanced line-up. Emanuel just has one game under his belt — though it was an impressive 5-1 thrashing of Al-Wahda of the UAE.

There is a strong streak of pragmatism among some Portuguese coaches and the key to this tie may well rest on which boss can instil a sense of normality and calm among his players. The atmosphere is sure to be frenetic and loud. The team that settles first may end up triumphant at the last.

3. It could be the Talisca vs Pereira show

There will be plenty of top-class talent on display on Tuesday but mouths around Asia will be watering at the prospect of two attacking midfielders, Al-Nassr’s Talisca and Al-Hilal’s Matheus Pereira, lining up against each other.

Both have made their mark in the league season so far and have established themselves as two of the best players in Asia, never mind the Saudi Professional League. Talisca has been a little more flamboyant, with blond hair, physical presence and delicious goals from outside the area. Pereira’s influence is not quite as spectacular but he pulls the strings in attack and increasingly sets the tempo of all the games he appears in.

The pair are both potential match-winners, and whichever one shines the brightest could end up being the one that pushes his team towards victory. 

4. It is hard to say who wants this more

Both sets of fans will be desperate to win this match — that goes without saying — but it is harder to say who are more desperate to lift the trophy.

You cannot talk to any Al-Hilal fan for more than a minute or two before being reminded that the club have won three Asian championships, more than any other on the continent except Pohang Steelers. There is a huge amount of pride at the record in Asia and fans would love nothing more than to become the only team on the continent to have won four championships. Asia is woven into Al-Hilal’s DNA.

Al-Nassr have yet to win one, though they reached the final back in 1995. That failure rankles more when your neighbours have been so successful. For the Yellows, winning the Champions League will mean many things and not just defeating their rivals along the way. It will mean being the best in Asia and moving out of the shadow of Al-Hilal’s continental exploits. And it will also mean that whatever happens for the rest of this season, it will already be a success.

5. It should be remembered that this is not the final

It is tempting to see this as a clash for the ages, a semifinal between bitter city rivals, but whoever wins will not get a trophy. There will still be a game left to play and that will come against a battle-hardened South Korean team.

Saudi Arabia has a fine record in Asian club competitions but cannot match the exploits of its counterparts from the K-League. In the other semifinal Ulsan Horang-i, defending champions and winners in 2012 (against Al-Ahli in the final), will take on Pohang Steelers, three-time champions who defeated Al-ittihad in the 2009 final. Ulsan beat Jeonbuk Motors, another Korean team, in the quarterfinals, who lifted the trophy in 2006 and 2016.

These are teams that are used to winning in Asia and will not bat an eyelid at playing in front of a passionate Riyadh crowd on Nov. 23. After the semifinal, there will still be work to do.

Scotland shocks Bangladesh, Oman thumps Papua New Guinea as Twenty20 World Cup gets underway

Scotland shocks Bangladesh, Oman thumps Papua New Guinea as Twenty20 World Cup gets underway
Updated 18 October 2021

Scotland shocks Bangladesh, Oman thumps Papua New Guinea as Twenty20 World Cup gets underway

Scotland shocks Bangladesh, Oman thumps Papua New Guinea as Twenty20 World Cup gets underway
  • Scotland holds its nerve to pull off a major upset against Bangladesh

AL AMERAT, Oman: Scotland held its nerve to pull off a major upset against Bangladesh with a six-run victory in their opening group game in the first round of the Cricket Twenty20 World Cup on Sunday.
In the other Group B game, co-host Oman thrashed debutant Papua New Guinea by 10 wickets.
Chris Greaves first lifted Scotland to 140-9 after Bangladesh won the toss and its spinners had reduced the Scots to 53-6 in the 12th over.
Greaves then picked up two key wickets of Mushfiqur Rahim (38) and Shakib Al Hasan (20) with his leg-spin which eventually restricted Bangladesh’s chase to 134-7.
“It was a great game,” Greaves said. “I’m just glad I could contribute in the way I did. Incredible.”
The top two teams from each of the two groups in the first round will advance to the Super 12 stage that starts in co-host United Arab Emirates next Saturday.
Bangladesh, a favorite to qualify for Super 12, struggled against Scotland’s seam and spin and could hit only eight boundaries and four sixes.
Medium fast bowlers Brad Wheal (3-24) and Josh Davey (1-24), along with spinner Mark Watt (1-19) combined well, but it was Greaves’ two wickets in the middle overs which completely unsettled Bangladesh.
Calum MacLeod took a brilliant running catch at deep mid-wicket to dismiss Shakib and Mushfiqur played a reckless ramp shot and his leg stump was knocked back by Greaves’ googly.
Earlier, Greaves revived Scotland with four boundaries and two sixes after Mahedi Hasan (3-19) and Shakib (2-17) picked up five wickets in the space of eight runs and reduced Scotland to 53-6.
Shakib also became the world’s leading wicket-taker in T20 internationals by claiming his 108th wicket when he removed Michael Leask for a duck.
Group A comprises Ireland, Namibia, Sri Lanka and the Netherlands.
Co-host Oman’s openers Jatinder Singh and Aqib Ilyas smashed unbeaten half centuries in their team’s thumping win over PNG.
Singh scored 73 off 42 balls and Ilyas made 50 that eased the host to 131-0 with more than six overs to spare.
Earlier, skipper Zeeshan Ashraf (4-20) registered Oman’s best figures in a T20 and pinned down PNG to 129-9.
“These are our home conditions, we knew even 140 could be chased easily,” Ashraf said. “We knew the wicket was playing very well, we needed to make sure we didn’t give away loose balls and easy boundaries.”
PNG captain Assad Vala (56) and Charles Amini (37) did well to share an 81-run stand after openers Tony Ura and Lega Siaka had played Oman fast bowlers back onto their stumps without a run on the board.
But Amini’s run-out was followed by Singh taking a brilliant running catch at long-on before Ashraf, the left-arm spinner, grabbed three wickets in an over to derail the PNG innings.
Singh, played several impressive reverse sweeps, hitting seven fours and four sixes without any of the seven bowlers used by Vala able to trouble the batsman. He raised the victory with a six over mid-wicket in the 14th over.
The 131-run stand was Oman’s best partnership for any wicket in a T20 and the chase, without losing a wicket, was the third-highest in men’s T20 internationals.
“On that wicket, 129 was never going to be enough,” Vala said. “We were looking at 160-plus to give ourselves a chance. (First) Charles got run out, then myself getting out, (and) we lost our way. I think a lot of credit goes to Maqsood and his boys.”

How Saudi Arabia got back to top of Asian football

How Saudi Arabia got back to top of Asian football
Updated 18 October 2021

How Saudi Arabia got back to top of Asian football

How Saudi Arabia got back to top of Asian football
  • With national team edging closer to Qatar 2022 and Al-Hilal, Al-Nassr facing off in AFC Champions League semi-final, football in Kingdom is thriving on, off pitch

RIYADH: Unless you have been living under a rock, you would be well aware by now of the takeover of English Premier League side Newcastle United by Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund. It has dominated front- and back-page headlines, and continues to do so, the world over.

And if you only consumed media from western Europe, you would be forgiven for thinking football in Saudi Arabia started and ended with the takeover or assisting FIFA in its push for a biennial FIFA World Cup.

But for those who prefer to glance east rather than west, these are very interesting times in Saudi football, but for entirely different reasons than a foreign takeover.

The Kingdom, and its horde of passionate and vocal fans, have always thought of themselves as a giant of Asian football and in the 1980s and 1990s that was most definitely the case, making the final of the AFC Asian Cup five tournaments in a row from 1984 to 2000 (winning three), while also qualifying for the FIFA World Cup for four successive tournaments from 1994 to 2006.

They also became only the second Asian nation after North Korea (1966) to make it to the knockout rounds when they advanced to the Round of 16 in 1994, before losing to Sweden.

The Kingdom were Kings of Asia, and it was a position that sat comfortably with them. But for the best part of the last two decades, Kings of Asia they have not been. Group stage exits in three of the last five Asian Cups and missing qualification for the 2010 and 2014 FIFA World Cups. In fact, in qualifying for Brazil 2014 they did not even make the final round.

It was a sudden and harsh fall from grace for the Green Falcons.

But the tide has since turned.

Under the stewardship of Frenchman Herve Renard, Saudi Arabia are the last remaining team with a 100 percent winning record in the final round of Asian qualifiers for Qatar 2022, taking all three points against Vietnam, Oman, Japan, and China.

Not even halfway through qualifying, and with just over 12 months until the global showpiece in neighboring Qatar, the Saudis already have one foot on the plane.

And what will please Renard is the manner in which they are doing it. The swagger is back. The verve with which they are playing, especially in the first half against China when they arguably should have put the game to bed, has been a sight to behold.

The most pleasing aspect, especially for Renard, will be the names that are finding the back of the net.

It is not the usual suspects such as Salem Al-Dossari, Fahad Al-Muwallad, or Salman Al-Faraj, the experienced trio who combined for more than half of Saudi Arabia’s 22 goals in the second round of qualifying.

Instead, it has been names such as the inexperienced trio of Saleh Al-Shehri, Firas Al-Buraikan, and Sami Al-Najei – all with less than 15 caps – that are standing up when it counts, scoring six of eight goals in this final phase.

While tougher tests await, especially as they are required to travel east to Japan, Australia, and Vietnam, for the moment things could not have gone any better.

At domestic level the fortunes of the national team are being matched on the continent by their club sides, with two Saudi clubs making it to the semi-finals of the AFC Champions League for the first time since 2012.

Such is the pedigree of Saudi clubs in this competition that at least one has made the semi-final in seven of the past 10 editions, although only Al-Hilal in 2019 went on to win the tournament.

It is not just on the park where Saudi teams are delivering, the scenes off it have been some of the most magical in Asian football.

The sight of thousands of streamers raining down onto the ground ahead of Al-Nassr’s quarter-final against the UAE’s Al-Wahda, which forced kick off to be delayed by 10 minutes, was one to behold and was a perfect illustration of the deep football culture that exists within the country.

As we now look ahead to Tuesday night’s semi-final and the highly anticipated Riyadh derby between Al-Nassr and Al-Hilal, we do so with huge anticipation of what is to come.

Mrsool Park in Riyadh may be small and intimate, but every corner and crevice of it will be shaking to its core as Al-Nassr and Al-Hilal fans make an atmosphere that would not be out of place anywhere in the world.

While the rest of the world may be looking to St. James’ Park for their understanding of Saudi football, they really should put their focus on Mrsool Park this week. If they did, they would see the true state of Saudi football – and it is in fabulous health.

‘Minister of Happiness’ Ons Jabeur becomes first Arab tennis player to break into world’s top-10

‘Minister of Happiness’ Ons Jabeur becomes first Arab tennis player to break into world’s top-10
Updated 18 October 2021

‘Minister of Happiness’ Ons Jabeur becomes first Arab tennis player to break into world’s top-10

‘Minister of Happiness’ Ons Jabeur becomes first Arab tennis player to break into world’s top-10
  • Tunisian star Monday landed No. 8 in WTA rankings to delight of growing global fanbase

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.