‘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.


Competing in Dakar Rally ‘dream come true’ for Saudi driver Dania Akeel

Dakar Rally participant Dania Akeel hopes that Saudi women will fulfil their wishes in order to score achievements in the name of the homeland. (Supplied)
Dakar Rally participant Dania Akeel hopes that Saudi women will fulfil their wishes in order to score achievements in the name of the homeland. (Supplied)
Updated 58 min 12 sec ago

Competing in Dakar Rally ‘dream come true’ for Saudi driver Dania Akeel

Dakar Rally participant Dania Akeel hopes that Saudi women will fulfil their wishes in order to score achievements in the name of the homeland. (Supplied)
  • A Saudi champion, Akeel was the winner of the T3 category at the 2021 FIA World Cup for Cross Country Bajas

RIYADH: Dakar Rally 2022 participant Dania Akeel’s determination for motor racing has remained unwavering, despite injuries and a horrific accident she had while racing, and has called qualifying for the race in Saudi Arabia as her “greatest dream come true.”

A Saudi champion, Akeel was the winner of the T3 category at the 2021 FIA World Cup for Cross Country Bajas, and is participating alongside her French co-driver Antonia De Roissard in the sixth and final stage of this season’s FIA World Cup for Cross-Country Rallies in Hail on board her car “Can Am Maverick X3”, which falls within the T3 category.

This participation is considered a test for her and her co-driver in preparation for the Dakar Rally and a chance she has been eagerly waiting for to represent her homeland.

Akeel also sees it as an opportunity to discover and familiarize herself with the stages’ terrain and roads. Through this participation, she seeks to train and test herself, her co-driver and her car, the same car she will be driving during her most important race in January.

“The Hail rally is a great opportunity for me and my team to prepare for the Dakar Rally, which is the greatest dream that has accompanied me since I started getting into motorsports. This dream is now closer than ever and the Hail rally will be a perfect opportunity for me to train and familiarize myself with some of Dakar Rally’s stages,” Akeel said.

Akeel made history as the first female Saudi driver to participate in a round of an international desert rally, which was held in the Eastern Province as part of the third round of the FIA World Cup for Cross Country Bajas, along with the first round of the Saudi Desert Rally Championship.

Akeel took the first steps of her career in 2019, as she participated in races on circuits in the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain. During her first season, she had an accident on the Bahrain International Circuit. This resulted in a pelvis fracture, which made her take a break from motorsports for a while.

She says that the world of cars and motorcycles is very difficult and challenging. It requires strength, courage and a sense of adventure, especially for women, who need to have a strong will because this sport is mostly male-dominated. However, she never backed down and kept pushing forwards to fulfil her ambitions because Saudi women are currently living in the era of women empowerment. She also wished that more girls and women would get into this sport in the Kingdom.

Akeel hopes that Saudi women will fulfil their wishes in order to score achievements in the name of the homeland. She also hopes that Saudi women will be able to achieve their dreams in all sports and fields.


Drivers Al-Attiyah, Alvarez go head-to-head for FIA World Cup glory in Saudi desert

Drivers Al-Attiyah, Alvarez go head-to-head for FIA World Cup glory in Saudi desert
Updated 08 December 2021

Drivers Al-Attiyah, Alvarez go head-to-head for FIA World Cup glory in Saudi desert

Drivers Al-Attiyah, Alvarez go head-to-head for FIA World Cup glory in Saudi desert
  • Saudi ace Yazeed Al-Rajhi eyes a top finish in bid to overhaul Alvarez and snatch second place

HAIL: Competitive action gets underway on Wednesday at the Hail Cross-Country Rally, the final round of the FIA World Cup for Cross-Country Rallies.

Qatar’s Nasser Saleh Al-Attiyah and Argentina’s Lucio Alvarez both drive V8-engined Toyota Hiluxes, built in conjunction with Toyota Gazoo Racing and Overdrive Racing, and they will go head-to-head to decide the outcome of the 2021 FIA World Cup Drivers’ Championship.

To win his first FIA World Cup title, Alvarez needs to overturn a 28-point deficit. The Argentine will need to win the rally outright and score at least three additional bonus points for daily stage performances and, even then, the outcome will depend on whether Al-Attiyah finishes lower than eighth overall and fails to secure a single bonus point.

Al-Attiyah said: “I won in Hail back in 2008 and 2011 and with Matthieu (Baumel), my current co-driver, we won the first of the Bajas last December. We will do our best to take the win again and seal the championship. We have a good car. The rally is also very useful experience for us before the Dakar Rally in January.”

It will be a big ask for Alvarez, but the battle has at least confirmed that Overdrive Toyotas should fill the top two places in the points’ standings unless Russia’s Denis Krotov can seal a top-four result and Alvarez fails to finish. Krotov drives an X-raid Mini and starts the rally four points adrift of local hero Yazeed Al-Rajhi. The Saudi knows that a top finish could also see him overhaul Alvarez and snatch second place in the series.

Hoping to upset the applecart and challenge for honors in their own right are the Orlen Team’s Jakub Przygonski and Argentina’s Sebastian Halpern in their X-raid Minis and Czech driver Miroslav Zapletal in a Ford F-150. Former Spanish enduro rider Laia Sanz also joins the German X-raid team to drive a Mini John Cooper Works Rally in readiness for the Dakar challenge that awaits.

With the FIA T3 and T4 championships already settled in favor of Spain’s Cristina Gutierrez and America’s Austin Jones, pride and pre-Dakar experience are at stake in both the hotly contested categories.

Eight teams line up in the T3 section, with Russian Pavel Lebedev leading the way in his Can-Am and facing competition from local favorite Saleh Al-Saif, fellow Saudis Mashael Al-Obaidan, Dania Akeel, Esra Aldkheil, and Hamed Al-Harbi, Germany’s Annett Fischer, and Uzbekistan’s Anvar Ergashev.

Al-Obaidan said: “This is a great opportunity for me to test for Dakar. This is my third race after Sharqiya and Aragon in Spain. It’s the first time that Jacopo (Cerutti), my co-driver, and I have participated together. I’ve been here a couple of times but never in an official race. There are three Saudi females, including myself. The sport is really booming here. I believe there is a really bright future in the Kingdom for everyone.”

Six crews will battle it out over the next four days for T4 honors. South Racing Middle East’s Thomas Bell tops the field and faces competition from Poland’s Marek and Michal Goczal, Kuwait’s Meshari Al-Thefiri, Australia’s Molly Taylor, and Ukraine’s Levgen Kovalevych.

There is also a National Rally running behind the main FIA rally, a separate event for motorcycles and quads, a truck category, and dispensation for several 2022 specification machines to compete with teams carrying out pre-Dakar testing.

Czech WRC star Martin Prokop wheels out the latest Ford Raptor Cross-Country, running under the Benzina Orlen Team banner, both Frenchman Ronan Chabot and Argentina’s Juan Cruz Yacopini try out Overdrive Racing’s latest Toyota Hilux T1+, and Sweden’s Sebastian Eriksson gets his hands on the latest T3-2022 South Racing Can-Am Maverick.

The Hail Cross-Country Rally is being organized by the Saudi Automobile and Motorcycle Federation under the supervision of the Hail Regional Development Authority in cooperation with the Ministry of Tourism and Ministry of Sports.

On Wednesday, competitors will tackle the first of four selective sections through the Al-Nafud desert. The competitive stage starts 82.59 kilometers from Rally HQ, includes a passage control and refueling point after 173 km, and runs for 258.14 km. A liaison of 47.31 km guides competitors back to the bivouac.

FIA World Cup for Cross-Country Rallies – driver standings:

1.Nasser Saleh Al-Attiyah (QAT) 92.5 pts

2.Lucio Alvarez (ARG) 64.5 pts

3.Yazeed Al-Rajhi (SAU) 57 pts

4.Denis Krotov (RUS) 53 pts

5.Mattias Ekstrom (SWE) 27 pts

FIA World Cup for Cross-Country Rallies – co-driver standings:

1. Matthieu Baumel (FRA) 92.5 pts

2. Armand Monleon (ESP) 64.5 pts

3. Konstantin Zhiltsov (RUS) 53 pts

4. Michael Orr (GBR) 35.5 pts

5. Emil Bergkvist (SWE) 27 pts


Bayern to ring changes for Barca match behind closed doors

Bayern to ring changes for Barca match behind closed doors
Updated 07 December 2021

Bayern to ring changes for Barca match behind closed doors

Bayern to ring changes for Barca match behind closed doors
  • Barcelona are second in Group E, but need a win at the Allianz Arena, which will be void of supporters due to high numbers of Covid-19 cases in Bavaria, to guarantee a last 16 spot

MUNICH: Injuries will force Bayern Munich coach Julian Nagelsmann to make changes for Wednesday’s Champions League match at home to Barcelona behind closed doors.

Bayern are already into the last 16 as group winners, but want a sixth win from six games in the group stages when they host Barcelona, who they trounced 3-0 at the Camp Nou in September.

Barcelona are second in Group E, but need a win at the Allianz Arena, which will be void of supporters due to high numbers of Covid-19 cases in Bavaria, to guarantee a last 16 spot.

Nagelsmann still plans to field “the best available” Bayern team, but at least two of his stars are carrying knocks.

“Leon (Goretzka) broke off training again, he probably won’t play, Serge Gnabry as well,” Nagelsmann said Tuesday.

The plum European tie also comes too early for both Eric Maxim Choupo-Moting and Joshua Kimmich, who are on the verge of leaving quarantine after testing positive for Covid-19.

Nagelsmann revealed that in Choupo-Moting’s case, “the after-effects of the infection are still such that we will wait until next week, even if he’s negative.”

Kimmich is set to end house isolation on the day of the game, but “after a four-week break, it makes no sense” for him to play, added Nagelsmann.

The Bayern boss said it “feels weird” to face Barcelona in front of empty terraces at the Allianz Arena.

The Bayern boss and his squad wants a perfect set of six wins to round off the group stages as reaching the last 16 “was important and a sixth win would be nice.”

The only time Bayern previously six wins from six was in 2019/20 on the way to winning the Champions League as part of the treble alongside the Bundesliga and German Cup titles.

Nagelsmann has already seen the impact of Xavi Hernandez, who took charge of the struggling Barcelona side four weeks after, but suffered his first defeat as head coach last weekend.

“They defend a little higher under him (Hernandez),” said Nagelsmann.

“The counter-pressing is more like in the days of Pep (Guardiola). That frees up space, but you have to first escape the pressure.”


Walker sent off as Man City crash at RB Leipzig

Walker sent off as Man City crash at RB Leipzig
Updated 07 December 2021

Walker sent off as Man City crash at RB Leipzig

Walker sent off as Man City crash at RB Leipzig
  • Walker was dismissed seven minutes from time for kicking Leipzig striker Andre Silva
  • After the final whistle, City coach Guardiola could not hide his irritation on the sidelines

LEIPZIG, Germany: Kyle Walker was shown a late red card as Manchester City suffered a shock 2-1 defeat at RB Leipzig on Tuesday, but City still advanced to the Champions League’s last 16 as group winners.
Walker was dismissed seven minutes from time for kicking Leipzig striker Andre Silva, who had earlier doubled the hosts’ tally after Dominik Szoboszlai gave Leipzig a first-half lead.
“We showed today that with courage and will we can beat everyone,” Szoboszlai told DAZN.
Before Walker’s dismissal, City had pulled a goal back when Riyad Mahrez finally headed past Leipzig goalkeeper Peter Gulacsi, who had previously pulled off a string of saves.
Walker will now be banned for the first leg of the last 16 tie.
“Right now, we don’t know exactly what went wrong — we’ll have to sit down and analyze this,” said City left-back Oleksandr Zinchenko.
“That we had won the group before the game had nothing really to do with our performance.”
Despite PSG’s 4-1 win against Club Brugge, City will go into Monday’s draw as Group A winners while third-placed Leipzig head into the knock-out stages of the Europa League.
After the final whistle, City coach Guardiola could not hide his irritation on the sidelines at the near-deserted Red Bull Arena as the game was played behind closed doors due to high numbers of Covid-19 cases in Saxony.
“We had already qualified with one game left from a tough group so I am more than satisfied with the performance in every single (European) game,” Guardiola said.
“We struggled in the first half today, but generally we have played well in the group stages.”
Leipzig rallied in their first game since American coach Jesse Marsch was sacked after inconsistent results. His assistant Achim Beierlorzer was on the home bench.
“That was the reaction we had wanted — and expected — to see,” said Leipzig chief executive Oliver Mintzlaff, who fired Marsch on Sunday.
In the build-up, Guardiola warned Kevin De Bruyne that he faces a fight to win back a regular place in the City side after a campaign marred by injuries and a coronavirus infection.
The Belgium midfielder fired wide after 17 minutes with the goal at his mercy, then had a thumping free-kick saved by Gulacsi in his best chances of the game.
Leipzig took the lead against the run of play when Konrad Laimer unleashed a superb pass which beat three defenders and put Szoboszlai in behind the City defense.
The attacking midfielder kept his nerve, rounded City goalkeeper Zach Steffen and fired into the empty net with 24 minutes played.
Leipzig nearly made it 2-0 with half-time approaching when Szoboszlai squared to Silva, but the Portugal striker headed straight at Steffen.
Guardiola responded at half-time by swapping England midfielder Phil Foden, who had an ankle knock, for Raheem Sterling, but Leipzig still held firm.
A huge roar from the home bench echoed around the stadium when Silva thumped home Emil Forsberg’s final pass to make it 2-0 on 71 minutes.
Leaking a second goal caused City to rally and they pulled one back when Oleksandr Zinchenko floated in a cross to the back post which Mahrez buried.
Walker’s dismissal only served to reduce City’s numbers for the final seven minutes as Leipzig held on.


Mbappe and Messi double up in PSG victory

Mbappe and Messi double up in PSG victory
Updated 07 December 2021

Mbappe and Messi double up in PSG victory

Mbappe and Messi double up in PSG victory
  • Mbappe scored twice in the first seven minutes, the second-fastest double at the start of a game in Champions League history
  • Mats Rits got one back for the Belgians in the second half

PARIS: Kylian Mbappe and Lionel Messi both scored twice as Paris Saint-Germain rounded out their Champions League group-stage campaign with a 4-1 thumping of Club Brugge on Tuesday.
Mbappe scored twice in the first seven minutes, the second-fastest double at the start of a game in Champions League history, before setting up Messi to make it 3-0 at half-time.
Mats Rits got one back for the Belgians in the second half but Messi then netted a penalty to make it 4-1 and give PSG a welcome confidence boost in an underwhelming European campaign to date.
Mauricio Pochettino’s side knew before this game that they were heading through to the last 16 in second place in Group A behind Manchester City after losing 2-1 in England last month.
That means a theoretically harder tie against a group winner awaits them in next Monday’s draw, with Liverpool, Ajax, Bayern Munich and Manchester United already potential opponents.
However, with Mbappe on this kind of form and Messi saving his best for Europe, there is still plenty of reason for optimism for Pochettino, who should also have Neymar back from his latest ankle injury by the time the knockout phase begins in February.
Mbappe needed just 73 seconds to open the scoring, following up to finish low into the far corner after Simon Mignolet had saved from Nuno Mendes.
The France World Cup-winning forward netted again in the seventh minute, showing great technique to volley in from Angel Di Maria’s assist for his 11th goal this season.
The only player to score two quicker goals at the start of a Champions League match is Rodrygo, for Real Madrid against Galatasaray in 2019.
Mbappe, who doesn’t turn 23 until later this month, is a player in a hurry and he is already onto 30 Champions League goals in his career — at the same age Messi had 25 and Cristiano Ronaldo, now the competition’s all-time top scorer, had eight.
It was a stunning burst of pace from Mbappe on the left that led to PSG’s third goal in the 38th minute as he picked out Messi in the middle and the Argentinian advanced to the edge of the box before scoring with a trademark left-foot finish into the corner.
The visitors pulled one back midway through the second half as Noa Lang set up Rits to finish past Gianluigi Donnarumma.
However, with RB Leipzig beating Manchester City 2-1 in the other Group A game, Club Brugge were condemned to finishing bottom and missing out on a consolation Europa League spot.
Messi then made it 4-1 for the Ligue 1 leaders in the 76th minute, converting a penalty he had won himself.
While the seven-time Ballon d’Or winner has managed just one Ligue 1 goal in nine appearances since moving to France in August, he now has five in five Champions League appearances for PSG.
Messi moves onto 125 career goals in the Champions League, a tally bettered only by his old rival Ronaldo, who has 140.