‘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
Ons Jabeur’s historic achievement did not go unnoticed by a host of tennis greats. (AFP)
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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.


Seventh edition of Pakistan Super League kicks off as T20 competitions continue to gain popularity

Seventh edition of Pakistan Super League kicks off as T20 competitions continue to gain popularity
Updated 1 min 10 sec ago

Seventh edition of Pakistan Super League kicks off as T20 competitions continue to gain popularity

Seventh edition of Pakistan Super League kicks off as T20 competitions continue to gain popularity
  • The PSL has strengthened its reputation as one of the most competitive global T20 tournaments despite player availability concerns

One of the most remarkable aspects of T20 cricket is how quickly it has spread. Since its inauguration in England and Wales in 2003, 15 professional T20 competitions have had their status recognized by the International Cricket Council. Around the cricketing world, there is a plethora of T20 tournaments for both men and women, even one for retired players in Oman at present.

Although South Africa and Pakistan introduced domestic T20 tournaments in 2003 and 2005, it is the Indian Premier League that epitomizes the rapid development of T20 cricket into a combination of high drama, commercial exploitation, spectator frenzy, inventive player skills, global reach and transformational impact.

Given the absence of consistent, up-to-date data, it is difficult to establish with any great accuracy the income and profit generated by the various T20 professional tournaments, but the IPL likely outstrips all others. After that, depending on the criteria used, Australia’s Big Bash, the England and Wales T20 Blast, the Caribbean Premier League and Pakistan’s Super League are usually considered to be the next strongest, if a mix of the availability and strength of domestic players, the availability and strength of overseas stars and the level of competition between the franchises is used.

One of the biggest issues for the tournament organizers and the players is how to fit the competitions into a very crowded cricket calendar. The final of the Big Bash is scheduled for Friday, Jan. 28, while the Pakistan Super League (PSL) started on Jan. 27. Some players are also involved in a T20 series between the West Indies and England that ends on Jan. 30. Fourteen players will join the PSL late.

Another issue is that some national cricket boards refuse to allow their contracted players to participate in these tournaments. India, for example, will not allow its contracted players to participate in tournaments in other countries, and Pakistani cricketers cannot play in the IPL.

It is impressive, then, that the PSL has managed to strengthen its reputation as one of the most competitive and challenging T20 tournaments. The 2022 edition will be the seventh since its inception in 2016, when, for security reasons, it was played in the UAE. Five teams, based in the five cities of Quetta, Peshawar, Lahore, Karachi and Islamabad participated, with Islamabad United defeating Quetta Gladiators in the final.

In 2018, a sixth city and team — the Multan Sultans — joined. They are the current champions, having defeated Peshawar Zalmi in June 2021 in Abu Dhabi, where the tournament was relocated after it had to be postponed in March when six players tested positive for COVID-19 in a bio-secure bubble in Pakistan. The 2017-2020 tournaments were all held in Pakistan.

This year, Karachi hosts the first leg of the tournament until February when the action switches to Lahore, where the play-offs and final will be held, the latter on Feb. 27.

In the league stage, the six teams play in a round-robin format, with the top four qualifying for the playoff stages. The top two teams will advance to a qualifier, with the winners going through to the final. The third and fourth-ranked sides will move to a first eliminator, with the winners meeting the losers of the qualifier to determine the second finalists. A total of 34 matches are scheduled to be played.

The franchises selected their players in a draft held in Lahore on Dec. 12, 2021. Prior to that, each team was allowed to retain a maximum of eight players from the previous edition, making further additions from the draft up to a maximum of 18 players.

Players were divided into five categories — platinum, worth $130,000-170,000; diamond, $60,000-85,000; gold, $40,000-50,000; silver, $15,000-25,000; and emerging, $7,500.

Each team was able to pick three players from the first three categories, five from silver and two from emerging.

A later supplementary category was subject to a separate, virtual, draft on Jan. 8, for teams to select two additional players, along with a replacement draft to allow teams to partially replace players who would be unavailable for the first few matches due to international commitments, or to fully replace those who had to withdraw.

PSL7 opens with a mix of high hope and caution. The hope is based on a strong lineup of players and Pakistan’s success in white-ball cricket in 2021. The caution relates to ongoing worries about the omicron variant of COVID-19. If cases were to surge, the event may not be able to switch to the UAE, where the Emirates Cricket Board could hold its own T20 league in February/March. And it would be difficult to reschedule due to Pakistan’s packed international schedule.

If more than eight players in a squad of 20 test positive, a reserve pool of about 25 locals can be used as replacements. If the whole competition is affected then it will be postponed for seven days, after which the remaining matches will be played as double-headers. Three distinct bubbles will be in place with different protocols: The main bubble comprises all the teams, staff and officials. Franchise members will not be allowed to meet within the hotel premises. The two other bubbles, comprising production crew and ground staff, will be at a separate hotel. The bubbles will not be allowed to interact and players will be tested regularly during the tournament.

Such precautions are wise, as there is much to lose. PSL receives over $15m per year from the franchises. Habib Bank, as lead sponsor, pays upwards of $5m per year. Broadcasting and live-streaming rights have been renewed at significantly higher levels.

PSL’s brand value is estimated to have increased almost 20 times since 2016, when it made a profit of $2.6m. But it is about more than just money; PSL provides an international showcase for young talent, who can spearhead Pakistan’s renewed aspirations to be a major force in world cricket.

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Cameroon government wants to ‘improve’ access to stampede stadium

Cameroon government wants to ‘improve’ access to stampede stadium
Updated 23 min 3 sec ago

Cameroon government wants to ‘improve’ access to stampede stadium

Cameroon government wants to ‘improve’ access to stampede stadium
  • A child and two women were among the victims, who were trampled by the crowd at the south gate of the stadium
  • "We are going to try to see if it is not possible to use other routes which would serve Olembe so that everyone does not use the same route," said the government's Minister of Communication

YAOUNDE: The Cameroonian government wants to “improve” access to the Olembe Stadium in Yaounde after the deadly stampede that killed eight people at the Africa Cup of Nations on Monday, its spokesman told state media on Thursday.
A child and two women were among the victims, who were trampled by the crowd at the south gate of the stadium as they attempted to enter the stadium where hosts Cameroon were playing Comoros. Another 38 were injured.
“We are going to try to see if it is not possible to use other routes which would serve Olembe so that everyone does not use the same route,” Rene Emmanuel Sadi, the government’s Minister of Communication, told CRTV and state-owned newspaper Cameroon Tribune.
“The prime minister has asked us to think about it and the general delegation for national security (police) will work to do so, so that access to the stadium is improved.”
Sadi said the traffic around the Olembe Stadium was “hellish” and that the government wanted to “improve” the system that was already in place.
African football supremo Patrice Motsepe on Tuesday said it was “inexplicable” that an entry gate had remained closed, contributing to the crush.
“If that gate was open as it was supposed to be, we wouldn’t have had this problem we have now, this loss of life. Who closed that gate? Who is responsible for that gate?” the Confederation of African Football (CAF) president said at a press conference.
The quarter-final that was due to be played at the Olembe Stadium was switched to the Ahmadou Ahidjo Stadium, also in Yaounde.
“The next match that was scheduled for the Olembe Stadium will not take place until CAF and the Local Organizing Committee have received the full report of the Investigation Committee (into the Olembe incident) indicating the circumstances and events that led to the injury and death of spectators at the Olembe Stadium,” CAF said in a statement on Wednesday.
Motsepe has demanded that the first conclusions of the investigation should be submitted to CAF by Friday at the latest.


Newcastle players take part in training session with youngsters from Saudi Mahd Academy

Newcastle players take part in training session with youngsters from Saudi Mahd Academy
Updated 27 January 2022

Newcastle players take part in training session with youngsters from Saudi Mahd Academy

Newcastle players take part in training session with youngsters from Saudi Mahd Academy
  • After completing their own training, Eddie Howe’s players put aspiring footballers through their paces at Al-Ittihad’s training ground in Jeddah

JEDDAH: Members of Newcastle United’s squad on Wednesday took part in a training session at Al-Ittihad club, after which they held drills for aspiring footballers from Saudi Arabia’s Mahd Academy.

The club are currently on a warm-weather training camp in Jeddah as they do not have a Premier League match this weekend.

Eddie Howe’s team will take part in a training match against Al-Ittihad on Friday behind closed doors, before heading back to the UK the following day.

The session began with stretching and fitness exercises for a period of 20 minutes, after which the players did some running around the training pitch, before moving onto ball practice.

After concluding their own training, the Newcastle players put some of Mahd Academy’s talented youngsters through their paces with technical exercises such as one-touch possession play and long-distance shooting.

The players ended the afternoon by signing shirts and posing for photos with the youngsters.


World No. 1 Novak Djokovic heads stellar field at 30th Dubai Duty Free Tennis Championships

World No. 1 Novak Djokovic heads stellar field at 30th Dubai Duty Free Tennis Championships
Updated 27 January 2022

World No. 1 Novak Djokovic heads stellar field at 30th Dubai Duty Free Tennis Championships

World No. 1 Novak Djokovic heads stellar field at 30th Dubai Duty Free Tennis Championships
  • Further 8 members of world’s top 20 will take part including 2021 champion Aslan Karatsev, semifinalists Andrey Rublev, Denis Shapovalov

DUBAI: Novak Djokovic will head a strong line-up of the world’s best next month when the Dubai Duty Free Tennis Championships men’s tournament celebrates its 30th anniversary.

Among those joining the five-time Dubai champion and world No. 1 will be a further eight members of the top 20, presenting an intriguing mix of exciting young talent and experienced veterans, including Dubai 2021 champion Aslan Karatsev, 2021 semifinalists Andrey Rublev and Denis Shapovalov, and former champion Roberto Bautista Agut.

Colm McLoughlin, executive vice chairman and chief executive officer of Dubai Duty Free, said: “We are thrilled to welcome so many top players to our 30th-year celebrations of the Dubai Duty Free Tennis Championships. We are delighted to see Novak back in Dubai for the 12th time when he will be seeking his sixth title and we wish him the best of luck.”

Karatsev has continued to impress following his remarkable run in Dubai, a week that saw him defeat Lloyd Harris to claim the first Association of Tennis Professionals title of his career. He went on to defeat Djokovic to reach the final in Belgrade, which he surrendered to Matteo Berrettini in a final-set tiebreak. Later in 2021, he earned a second career title with victory over Marin Cilic in Moscow and began the 2022 season by beating Andy Murray in the Sydney final to win title number three.

Rublev will be among those who, along with Djokovic and Karatsev, will also be a strong contender for the title. Although he fell last year in a thrilling semifinal to fellow Russian and eventual champion Karatsev, he enjoyed a successful season.

After being a member of the victorious Russian team at the ATP Cup and then claiming the Rotterdam title shortly before arriving in Dubai, he went on to finish as runner-up in Monte Carlo where he earned a rare clay court victory over Rafael Nadal. His 2021 season then finished on a triumphant note as his four wins in five matches guided Russia to victory in the Davis Cup.

Shapovalov last year fell in Dubai to rising star Harris, but he can still look back on a wonderful year that saw him reach the Wimbledon semifinals in a run that included victory over former champion Murray, runner-up finishes in Geneva and Stockholm, and a further semifinal at Queens’s Club. He has also begun the 2022 season on a positive note, helping Canada to victory in the ATP Cup.

Among others to watch are another Canadian, current world No. 9 Felix Auger-Aliassime, Jannik Sinner, and the unpredictable and often brilliant Gael Monfils.

Auger-Aliassime will be making his Dubai debut after beginning 2022 by entering the world’s top 10 for the first time following his success with compatriot Shapovalov in winning the ATP Cup, and a 2021 season that saw him contest the finals of a pre-Australian Open event in Melbourne and Stuttgart, whilst also reaching the semifinals of the US Open and the quarterfinals at Wimbledon.

Sinner’s outstanding 2021 season propelled him into the top 10 as he claimed titles in Melbourne, Washington, Sofia, and Antwerp as well as a place in the Miami final, before finishing the year with three victories in the Davis Cup. This year he was in form again as he represented Italy in the ATP Cup, winning all three of his matches to kick off his new season.

Monfils is one of the game’s greatest entertainers and has enjoyed considerable success in Dubai, reaching the semifinals in 2019 where he fell to Stefanos Tsitsipas in a three-hour thriller that finished in a final-set tiebreak, and then again in 2020 when he stretched Djokovic to three sets.

Tournament director, Salah Tahlak, said: “We can once more look forward to two weeks of fantastic tennis as we not only enjoy the 30th-year celebrations of the ATP Tour event, but an incredible line-up of talent in the preceding WTA (Women’s Tennis Association) 500 tournament that features nine of the world’s top 10 and 17 of the top 20 women players, including no less than five previous Dubai winners all returning to one of their favorite tournaments.”

The tournament begins with the 22nd edition of the WTA event which takes place between Feb. 14 and 19, and then continues from Feb. 21 to 26 with the 30th anniversary staging of the men’s ATP Tour 500 tournament.


Top seed Ashleigh Barty crushes Madison Keys to make Australian Open final

Top seed Ashleigh Barty crushes Madison Keys to make Australian Open final
Updated 27 January 2022

Top seed Ashleigh Barty crushes Madison Keys to make Australian Open final

Top seed Ashleigh Barty crushes Madison Keys to make Australian Open final
  • The world number one overwhelmed the 51st-ranked American 6-1, 6-3 in just 62 minutes

MELBOURNE: A ruthless Ashleigh Barty swept into her first Australian Open final on Thursday with the top seed outgunning a resurgent Madison Keys in a clinical, straight-sets demolition.
The world number one overwhelmed the 51st-ranked American 6-1, 6-3 in just 62 minutes to set up showdown against either Polish seventh seed Iga Swiatek or American 27th seed Danielle Collins.
Barty is the first Australian woman into the decider of her home Grand Slam since Wendy Turnbull in 1980 and is aiming to become the first winner since Chris O’Neil two years earlier.
She is also looking to add to her 2020 French Open and 2021 Wimbledon 2021 titles, with the top seed on an ominous 10-match win streak to start the year.
“Honestly, it’s just incredible. I’m just happy I get to play my best tennis here,” said Barty, who is assured of retaining her world number one ranking even if she loses the final.
“The ball was a little slower tonight, heavier off the strings. I just tried to run and adapt, make as many balls as I could and keep Maddie under the pump on her serve because she has the ability to really take it away from you quickly.”
Barty paid tribute to Keys, a former top-10 player who is on the rise again after difficult couple of years.
“It’s just so nice to see her back where she belongs,” said Barty. “She’s an amazing human being.”
Barty has been unassailable in Melbourne, dropping her serve just once through six matches and is yet to drop a set.
And the top seed, who played cricket with her team on Wednesday to relax, was once more in full command of her game with an attacking forehand and lethal backhand slice.
Facing Barty on her home turf was an unenviable assignment for 26-year-old Keys, but she came into the game on a 10-match win streak, the best run of her career.
The Australian, though, immediately pressured her serve to create a break point that she converted with a cross-court winner to assert early control.
She consolidated with a serve to love as Keys struggled to get her racquet on the ball before the American gained confidence with a hold for 1-2.
The American was broken again in the fifth game, as her unforced error count mounted.
She finally won her first points on the Barty serve in the next game and gained a break point when Barty sent a looping forehand long. But the Australian saved it with an ace and stormed 5-1 in front.
Keys’ first double fault handed Barty two set points and she slammed a forehand return to take the set in just 26 minutes.
Keys had beaten top 10 players Paula Badosa and Barbora Krejcikova back-to-back to make the last four and was more composed as her nerves settled in set two.
It went with serve to 2-2 before Keys worked a break point in the fifth game only to be denied by a Barty volley, before the Australian held.
Barty then stepped up a gear in the next game, earning three break points. Keys saved two before a passing shot put her 4-2 clear and there was no way back for the American.