In light of Wimbledon’s ban on Russian and Belarusian players at this summer’s Championships, Tunisian tennis star Ons Jabeur insists that sports and politics should not mix.
The All England Club announced last week they would not be accepting entries for Wimbledon from Russian or Belarusian players due to the invasion of Ukraine — a decision that has been criticized by both WTA and ATP tours, as well as several stars of the game.
Jabeur sympathizes with her Ukrainian peers but can also understand how difficult it can be for Russian and Belarusian players to speak up against the war, and risk putting their families in danger back home.
“It’s a very tough decision, I understand what the Ukrainian people are going through and I am totally against war,” said world No.10 Jabeur.
“But what I’ve always been told for so many years is to never mix sports and politics.”
The talented North African has experienced firsthand what can happen when politics make their way into the sporting arena. She says she has received death threats in the past for supporting the Palestinian cause, and also faced backlash when she had to represent Tunisia against Israel in a Billie Jean King Cup tie two years ago.
“I’ve had some situations of my own, especially in the 2020 in BJK Cup when we were supposed to play Israel. I 100 percent feel very sorry for the Palestinian people and I feel sorry for the children that are dying every day for 74 years. So I don’t understand how it’s now okay to mix politics and sports,” said the 27-year-old.
“What about all the other countries where people and children have been dying every day?
“For me, I don’t think we should mix politics and sports. It’s very sad what’s happening in the world and one thing I hate in this world is politics. It’s very dirty and we can never get the full picture of everything. So I hope this situation will be resolved very soon, I don’t know what’s going to happen.
“But I know that also Russians and Belarusians have their families back home, so I’m not sure how much they can talk about it.
“So it’s a very difficult situation for both, especially for Ukrainians. And honestly, I hope this war will be over soon so there will be no problems.”
She closed her remarks by urging more focus on the Palestinian cause: “But I also hope people could also look back to Palestinians because this subject really touches me as an Arab woman, it’s not fair and I hope we don’t mix politics and sports.”
Jabeur was speaking on the sidelines of the Madrid Open where the No.8 seed kicked off her campaign with a 7-6(9), 6-1 victory over Italian Jasmine Paolini on Thursday.
The first Arab tennis player — man or woman — to crack the top 10 in the world rankings, Jabeur is happy to have put the injury woes that troubled her at the start of the season behind her, and is feeling confident on clay in the build-up to next month’s Roland Garros.
She made the final on green clay in Charleston earlier this month before making the quarters on indoor clay last week.
This fortnight in the Spanish capital, Jabeur, who typically travels with her Tunisian coach Issam Jellali and her husband/fitness coach Karim Kamoun, will have some extra support from her box in the form of her sports psychologist Melanie Maillard.
“I did a few tournaments with her — one of them was Wimbledon last year,” said Jabeur, who last summer became the first Arab woman in history to make the Wimbledon quarter-finals.
“So mentally, all of the pressure is on her, she’s got to get me ready for the tournament,” joked the Tunisian.
“Physically we tried to manage between coming from Charleston to Stuttgart to here. But I think we’re good, we’re working really well, we’re working even more than last year, I’m putting more things in place, I feel more athletic on the court, I feel more endurance on the court, so I’m liking the new me, let’s say.”
Jabeur has been one of the most consistent forces on tour over the past year-and-a-half and is keen to keep the momentum going as she chases some lofty goals.
“Honestly I’m very thankful for the team I have because they know me so well and we really discuss everything; to maintain being physically good, with Karim we’re working a great job, with Issam, with Melanie,” she added.
“I feel like we’re doing the balance to do everything right and the motivation is here. We know we have a goal to achieve and losing matches won’t help, so I feel we have to continue in this way.
“I’m just enjoying the moment right now and the most important thing for me as a player is to enjoy the moment, to enjoy being on the court because if I don’t feel motivated at all to be here then I don’t have to be here to be honest.”
Asked why she chooses to have her mental coach with her at some tournaments, Jabeur explained: “I like to have Melanie around me because we don’t do that a lot. We usually speak on WhatsApp or chat online, but I don’t like the virtual world too much, so I try to bring her as much as I can but she probably has other athletes.
“I know I just need her from time to time, I don’t really need her always because a phone call can be easy and enough for me. I felt like I needed to have her, being surrounded by two guys all the time is not good, so having a woman in my team is good.”
Jabeur next takes on either Russian qualifier Varvara Gracheva or French veteran Alize Cornet in the Madrid Open second round.