DUBAI: Only hours before Tunisian tennis superstar Ons Jabeur launched her Wimbledon 2022 campaign against Sweden’s Mirjam Bjorklund, she was confirmed as world number two, the highest ranking of her career.
It was also the highest ever for an African or Arab tennis player, female or male.
For Emirati tennis pundit Khalid Al-Ali, Jabeur and other female players from North Africa are helping to raise the profile and popularity of tennis like never before.
“You can split the Arab world in two, and the Maghreb countries, like Tunisia, Morocco and Algeria, in addition to Egypt, are very advanced in tennis,” he said. “As well as Ons, there is the Egyptian player Mayar Sherif, who has ranked in the sixties. And that is also proof that women’s tennis is more advanced at this point in time than the men’s, where no one has reached these levels.”
As a tennis lover, Al-Ali enjoys, in particular at this time of the year, the established traditions that Wimbledon holds dear, and the intense rivalry on court for the men’s and women’s titles, which is this year tinged by a possible changing of the guard and politics.
“Wimbledon started in 1877, it has such rich heritage,” he said. “Traditions such as wearing all white, and having no advertising hoarding around the courts, have been maintained until now. There are changes this year, however. Players used to enter the courts from the side but this year there is a new tradition and the players will be making their entrance from the middle of the court.
“Also, it’s the first time that Wimbledon’s center court has been opened for practice before the start of the tournament. Traditionally, no one was allowed to step on (center) court before the first official match, so those are two new additions.”
But perhaps the biggest change this year is one of personnel.
“For the first time in 24 years, Roger Federer will miss the championship,” said Al-Ali. “So that differentiates this edition, as does the banning of Russian players. For that reason, the ATP has withdrawn all points that would have been awarded, as they see that as politics interfering with sports.
In Federer’s absence, eyes will, once again, inevitably turn to reigning champion Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal, now ranked third and fourth in the world.
“Djokovic has won the last three tournaments, and logically, on grass he is the first seed,” Al-Ali said. “After that as always, Nadal, even when we don’t consider him a favorite, imposes himself on the tournament like we saw in Roland Garros. Before Roland Garros he had lost in Roma to Denis Shapovalov, the Canadian.
“And there were doubts that it would be his last tournament, as his body can’t take the injuries anymore. But he won it and now his confidence is high, and he hopes to achieve something that Novak almost managed but couldn’t. That is the Golden Grand Slam, winning all four (majors) in the same year. He’s already won in Australia and Roland Garros. He enters Wimbledon with his dream still alive.”
“Last year Djokovic won the Australian Open, then Roland Garros and Wimbledon, and headed to the US Open with high hopes of achieving something that only Rod Laver, the Australian player, had managed. He did it twice, once before professionalism, which did not count in the record books, but he came back to do it again after the Second World War.”
Djokovic lost the US Open final in straight sets to Daniil Medvedev. That setback and the unsavory episode at the Australian Open — when he was detained because he had not been vaccinated for COVID-19 — were big blows to his morale.
“But he has a great chance to hit back at Wimbledon,” Al-Ali said. “Also among the favorites will be (Stefanos) Tsitsipas, (Matteo) Berrettini, who won two grass tournaments this year, and who was the losing Wimbledon finalist last year against Djokovic. You can narrow it down to those players.”
“Andy Murray returns as a wild card as he has low ranking,” Al-Ali added. “Physically he might not be ready, but playing in front of his crowd could see (him) adapt.”
In the women’s competition, Wimbledon welcomes back the great Serena Williams, who, with 23 Grand Slam titles, still has hopes of equaling the women’s record of 24 held by Margaret Court.
“Serena Williams returns as a wild card after a long absence,” said Al-Ali. “She played a doubles (game) with Ons Jabeur at Eastbourne, where they reached the semifinal, but Ons had to withdraw through injury. It was a slight injury but she didn’t want to aggravate it ahead of Wimbledon.
“Williams looked heavier and was not the Serena we are used to. But she still has a shot or two that’s suited to grass, so she could possibly advance along with the favorites.
“Of course, (world number one) Iga Swiatek is among the favorites, and so is the Swiss player (Belinda) Bencic. And then there is the return of Petra Kvitova who won at Eastbourne, and has been Wimbledon champion twice.”
“In women’s tennis there are always surprises,” Al-Ali said.
Jabeur, though now the world number two is seeded third at Wimbledon, and the Emirati commentator has high hopes for her despite the heightened level of expectation.
“She reached the quarterfinals last year, which was her best performance in a Grand Slam,” said Al-Ali. “She is under a lot of pressure, but she is playing wonderfully, and her style suits grass. We might just see her in the final.”
Another run into the latter rounds, and her army of fans in the Arab world — not to mention her hero status — will continue to grow. For Al-Ali, it is hoped that her achievements, and those of other African Arabs, will one day spread to the rest of the Middle East.
“Geographical location always plays a role, whether in sports or any other field,” he said. “Proximity, costs, mentality, being close to the heart of this sport. It’s a sport that started in France and was then (organized by the) English. At its heart, there is a certain lifestyle, many sacrifices for the players, especially female players. But we see the Moroccans, Algerians, Tunisians and Egyptians excel in this sport. And of course the size of the population is a factor. They have experienced this education earlier than in this region.”
In the UAE and the GCC, the popularity of tennis continues to grow, thanks to the increasing numbers of events taking place, he said.
“Thankfully, things are improving here. All the world’s best players come here to Dubai, so the popularity of the sport has increased,” said Al-Ali. “What Ons is doing is similar to what happened in China. China is a massive and great country, but tennis only became popular after Li Na won two Grand Slams, at Roland Garros and the Australian Open. After that, the country started to pay attention.”
“So we hope that with Ons Jabeur, and after the rise of the three Moroccans Karim Alami, Hicham Arazi and Younes El Aynaoui, more will come,” he added. “There is Abdullah Shelbayh from Jordan who is playing at junior level at Wimbledon, and has won the doubles there. He trains at Rafael Nadal’s academy, I have high hope for him.”
With the right backing and funding, Al-Ali is certain the future will see more Arab tennis players follow in Jabeur’s footsteps.
“We are always optimistic,” he said. “We have a beautiful academy in Fujairah, established by Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al-Maktoum, and I’m on the board of directors there. When Ons Jabeur was a junior she played in the tournament there after it entered the ITF ranks, and Alexander Zverev won at Fujairah as well.
“We are no strangers to organizing the best tournaments in this region, what we have to do now is introduce development programs, we don’t have any clear programs at the moment. Also there is a lack of equality in funding between sports. We have to make sure individual sports like tennis are backed just like football.”