A few days ago, Malak El-Allami, a 16-year-old from Casablanca, became the first Moroccan female to win a singles match at Wimbledon when she advanced to the second round of the juniors draw.
El-Allami, who turns 17 later this month, is currently ranked 41 in the ITF world junior rankings. She teamed up with her compatriot Aya El-Aouni to win a round in the Roland Garros junior doubles event in Paris a few weeks ago.
El-Aouni entered the top 30 in the world junior rankings in May and, at 18, is preparing to step up to the professional tour.
In separate interviews at Wimbledon this week, El-Allami and El-Aouni were asked who their favorite player was growing up. Both responded without hesitation: “Ons Jabeur.”
Jabeur is the most successful Arab tennis player in history. She reached No.2 in the world last year after making two major finals. On July 15, the Tunisian has a chance to become the first African-born Grand Slam singles champion and the first from the Arab world.
Jabeur has always reminded the public that she is “100 percent a product of Tunisia” and her success on the global stage has inspired El-Allami, El-Aouni, and countless others from the region to dream of following in her footsteps.
Egyptian Mayar Sherif hit a career-high ranking of 31 last month, and was seeded at a Grand Slam for the first time at this year’s Wimbledon. Sherif says witnessing Jabeur’s ascent to the top echelons of the sport pushes her to work harder.
It’s no different for the Moroccan teens as they embark on their own journeys.
“She’s a really great person. Whenever we see her here at Wimbledon, she says hi and asks about my matches and everything,” El-Allami said of Jabeur, who knows El-Allami’s older sister Fatima from their days together on the junior circuit.
“It helps to see players like Ons and Mayar do so well, because you see people from countries that are close to yours, and from cultures that are close to yours, achieving so many great things, while people always say that tennis is not for us.
“When you see them doing great things, you believe even more and it motivates you to work very hard,” El-Allami added.
El-Aouni marvels at Jabeur’s “special game” and says it’s perfectly suited for grass, a surface the Moroccan is not too familiar with and has struggled on this week in the junior event.
Both El-Allami and El-Aouni come from tennis-playing families.
“I started playing in Casablanca way before I can remember and I fell in love with the sport,” said El-Allami. “My dad is a coach, and my brothers as well, so I started playing with my brother and I started getting better, then I got into the national tennis center and I’ve been practicing with them forever. I really hope to do great things in the sport.”
El-Allami is coached by her father Mokhtar, her brothers Mohamed and Omar, and also gets help from the Moroccan Tennis Federation, who have provided French coach Cyril Genevois to accompany her at Wimbledon.
She says the federation, as well as the Moroccan National Olympic Committee, have invested a lot in her, covering her travel costs to tournaments, and providing coaches and physios.
Wimbledon was the first time El-Allami had played a match on grass. She was unable to play in the junior grass-court event in Roehampton the previous week due to delays in her UK entry visa. But despite feeling uncomfortable at first, her aggressive play helped her get an opening-round victory over American Anya Murthy.
El-Allami said she has gained more belief in herself over the last two years, since she started playing well against tough opposition. She is ambitious by nature and speaks with confidence and wisdom beyond her years.
“I’m someone who, if I’m doing something, I want to be the best at it. Because if I’m doing it anyways, then I might as well be the best,” she declared.
“In the 2021 Junior Billie Jean King Cup, Morocco came sixth and that was a first for Arabs and Africa. We played with the best in the world in our categories, so that made us believe that we’re close and we could compete with them,” she added. “So I think it’s then that I started to believe more in what we could do in Morocco.”
Besides Jabeur, El-Allami also admires Serena Williams “because she has such an aggressive game and her mentality is really strong,” Roger Federer, and Rafael Nadal, “because everything Nadal does is just so impressive.”
She hasn’t decided yet if she will go to university in the US and play college tennis, or if she will pursue a career on the professional tour straight out of high school.
“The goal is to have a career as a pro tennis player. I’m not against the idea of college. So if, in these two years, I don’t have a lot of success, I will go to college, as Mayar did, and now she’s playing really well,” explained El-Allami, noting how Sherif excelled for Pepperdine University before transitioning to the professional circuit and rocketing up the rankings. “Even if you go to college and keep working hard and have your goals in mind, then why shouldn’t it work?”
El-Allami trains at the SOC club, Stade Olympique Casablancais, back home and says she and El-Aouni practice together almost every day. “I think it’s an excellent thing because we push each other to do great things and as we practice with each other every day, when we see each other doing good, we believe even more in what we can do,” she said.
There aren’t many others at their level though, and travelling abroad for university could help her share the court with tougher opposition.
El-Aouni got into tennis through her father Abdelrahim and is currently coached by her uncle Hamid Abdelrazaq.
Their families have known each other since before Malak and Aya were born, which naturally led to the pair becoming good friends, practice partners and teammates.
El-Allami has started playing ITF professional events but admitted that, mentally, she still has work to do in order to get the results she knows she can achieve.
“I see some players that, if I played them in the juniors, I would beat them. But as I’m playing them and (thinking that now) it’s on the professional tour, it gets tougher. I don’t know why. When I figure it out, I will break through,” she said. “I think it’s very important to start that transition from the juniors to the WTA early, so you have time to adapt.”
If given the chance to speak properly with Jabeur or Sherif, El-Allami knows exactly what she would like to ask them.
“I’d ask Ons what made her keep believing in herself, because she won Roland Garros juniors but she didn’t rank quickly in the seniors, then 10 years later she did great things. So just to have that kind of strength and bravery is incredible,” says El-Allami.
“And Mayar, I mean, going to college and still fighting for your goals (on the professional tour) is incredible, so I’d like to ask her how she got that done?”
As the legendary Billie Jean King once said, “You have to see it to be it.” Luckily for El-Allami and El-Aouni, Jabeur and, more recently, Sherif are providing an excellent blueprint for young tennis players from North Africa and the Arab world to pursue their dreams.