Although she refuses to take credit for it, Ons Jabeur has played a crucial role in bringing a WTA tournament to her home country of Tunisia for the very first time, and the popular world No.2 will be the main attraction when the event kicks off in Monastir on Monday.
The Jasmin Open is just the second tournament on the WTA calendar taking place in North Africa and it came to life thanks to a conversation Jabeur had with IMG’s Vickie Gunnarsson at the Mubadala World Tennis Championship (MWTC) in Abu Dhabi last December.
Gunnarsson, the director of IMG tennis events and tournament director of the MWTC, got to witness Jabeur’s talent and charm up close when the Tunisian was brought in as a late replacement for a Covid-stricken Emma Raducanu at the exhibition event in Abu Dhabi 10 months ago.
Jabeur dazzled the crowd with her unique and playful game style and connected with the kids during the clinics and autograph sessions she took part in away from the match court.
The interest in tennis in Tunisia, North Africa and the Arab world has shot through the roof over the past couple of seasons thanks to Jabeur’s history-making feats that saw her reach back-to-back finals at Wimbledon and the US Open this summer and become the highest-ranked Arab player and African woman in history.
Egypt’s Mayar Sherif has also played a part as she cracked the top 50 earlier this season and became the first from her country to lift a WTA trophy just last Saturday in Parma.
IMG, one of the key players in the global tennis industry, recognize the potential for the sport in North Africa and Gunnarsson floated the idea of staging a WTA tournament in Tunisia to Jabeur while chatting on the sidelines of the MWTC last year.
“It’s the WTA sanction we had in Rio de Janeiro, which has moved a little bit; ended up in China, and now we had to find a new home for it,” Gunnarsson told Arab News of the origin story of the Jasmin Open.
“It was actually after Ons Jabeur came to Abu Dhabi last year and I chatted with her. I asked her, ‘You’re Tunisian and tennis seems to be booming there and you’re a great role model, do you think Tunisia would be interested in hosting a WTA 250 event? It was a wild chance, right?
“She said, ‘Actually yes, tennis is huge in Tunisia now and it’s growing, so let’s give it a shot’. So she introduced me to Salma (Mouelhi-Guizani), the president of the Tunisian Tennis Federation, and we started talking and Salma was like, ‘Yes, we want to do this’.”
IMG have leased the tournament to the Tunisian federation for three years but are supporting the hosts by sending a team to Monastir – a coastal city south of Tunis – to help them put it all together.
“We want it to be a success. They have an option to continue after three years and we want them to as well. Hopefully the tournament is successful here and we can continue, that’s the goal really,” added Gunnarsson.
The venue is the Magic Life Skanes hotel, a beachfront resort providing courts and facilities to host the tournament as well as accommodation, all in one site. A new 2,500 capacity center court was constructed just for the event and two more courts were transformed into show courts.
“Here it’s an incredible time for tennis,” said Gunnarsson during a video call from Tunisia.
“We had a press conference with Ons two weeks leading up to the event in Tunis and the place was packed, for a 250 tournament; everybody was there for Ons and to follow what’s going to happen. It’s a big deal for them, they’ve never had this big of an event.”
Jabeur, who does her preseason training blocks at the same venue in Monastir every year, is proud to see her homeland stage a WTA tournament and says it’s a “dream come true”.
“Honestly I’m surprised with how amazing the organization is here, given how little time they had to prepare for it. I know people working at the hotel and everyone managing the hotel and the federation really want this to be successful,” Jabeur told Arab News on Sunday.
“I’m very proud that they’re organizing this in Tunisia. I’ve been asking the players if they need anything; it feels like I’m the one hosting the tournament for some reason, I think it’s an Arab thing. I’m very happy with the way the tournament is going. I’m very excited to play here.”
Is she knocking on her fellow players’ doors offering room service?
“Literally I was going to do that. I was asking if they have the almond milk and everything. I was teasing the players, saying, ‘Look at this beach view, you don’t have this in Ostrava’,” laughed Jabeur, referring to the WTA tournament taking place simultaneously in Ostrava, Prague this week.
While she is aware of her role in boosting tennis as a whole in Tunisia and the Arab and African region, Jabeur believes all she did to help the Jasmin Open get off the ground was “connect the right people at the right time”.
“I don’t want to take credit for an amazing thing that the federation did with Vickie, with the hotel, to build the center court at such short notice, with all the authorization. I feel like I didn’t do anything about this, I just connected people at the right time,” said the 28-year-old star.
Jabeur has taken the opportunity to show her fellow players all that Tunisia has to offer, inviting them over for vacations in hopes to boost her nation’s tourism.
Monastir hosts lower-level ITF tournaments 52 weeks a year, following a model initially adopted by Egypt, where the Red Sea resort town of Sharm El Sheikh had been doing that for years. The idea is to raise the hotel’s occupancy by having tennis players around all season, while also providing young up-and-comers from the region the opportunity to contest smaller tournaments to move up the rankings without spending too much money on travel.
“It gives a solid platform from the grassroots. It’s very smart and it’s taken them a few years to be ready to have these big tournaments; Egypt should also be ready for a big one I think, especially now with Mayar Sherif. So I think that’s super exciting,” explained Gunnarsson.
“I think on the men’s side they would be up for it too, for sure I think men’s tennis is also very popular here, especially on the grassroots level. The women are the most successful currently at the top but I’m sure there will be men coming up as well.”
On the back of Sherif’s recent success, there has been interest from Cairo to host a WTA tournament and the Egyptian is keen to see tennis develop more and more in her nation.
“My whole life I believed that Egypt has incredible talent, we have unbelievable potential; we just lack the system,” said Sherif.
“At the moment, we have a lot of $15k tournaments, we have a lot of ITFs, so many tournament weeks, and that encourages young players to come up. What’s missing is a proper system.
“Myself, as Mayar, I believe my tennis career is only the start of my journey. I really wish to help young girls come up and make it in the sport, because I believe it’s very, very possible.
“Ons, and myself, we have given them that belief, they don’t have an excuse not to believe anymore. So to stage a WTA 250 tournament in the region, for them to watch us live and to see how we’re not too far, that’s huge, and hopefully this will impact the next generations.”
Gunnarsson believes success on the tennis court can only go so far and recognizes that the special qualities Jabeur possesses are the real driver behind her popularity and influence.
“I think she is an incredible role model. I think a lot of people can identify with her, she’s very personable, a really good person, and she’s funny, she’s got humor, it’s like she has the responses ready when people tease her or ask her questions,” said Gunnarsson.
“I think also the Minister of Happiness thing (Jabeur’s nickname); people here in Tunisia really embrace that. It’s been tough times for a long time now… they needed that person to represent happiness to them and that’s what she’s become, especially in Tunisia.
“I can see Ons here, the impact that she has, and I think tennis alone won’t do it, but I think she has the character also. She’s super charming and people just love that. They were joking the other day when Tunisia played a football game, they were saying they should put Ons on the pitch. Everybody is talking about Ons.
“Mayar seems to be a charismatic person as well, so I think she has tremendous potential to be something similar to Ons. It helps when the tennis and personality go hand in hand.”
Jabeur will return to Abu Dhabi again this December for the MWTC, where she will face 2021 US Open champion Raducanu in an exhibition clash.
“I think it’s going to be significant. It’s the best line-up,” said Gunnarsson of the Abu Dhabi showpiece.
“I think Ons drives so much interest from the Arab world, and that’s who we want to inspire in the first place. When the tournament was set up initially 13 years ago to grow the interest for sports in the region and get more people moving and active and stuff, especially Arabs.
“So Ons works perfectly for the goals of the tournaments, she fulfills all those objectives and she is a huge role model, so we’re very excited about that.”
For Jabeur, she hopes this tournament in Tunisia is just the start and hopes to see more big events pop up in the region.
“Hopefully we can have like a small tour of several tournaments here in Africa one day,” she added.