Interview: Ons Jabeur’s coach Issam Jellali talks tough 2023 season, missing piece of Grand Slam puzzle, and more

Interview: Ons Jabeur’s coach Issam Jellali talks tough 2023 season, missing piece of Grand Slam puzzle, and more
Ons Jabeur of Tunisia reacts as she competes against Vera Zvonareva of Russia during the women's singles quarter-final match at WTA Ningbo Open tennis tournament in Ningbo, in China's (AFP)
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Updated 03 November 2023
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Interview: Ons Jabeur’s coach Issam Jellali talks tough 2023 season, missing piece of Grand Slam puzzle, and more

Interview: Ons Jabeur’s coach Issam Jellali talks tough 2023 season, missing piece of Grand Slam puzzle, and more
  • Tunisian speaks exclusively to Arab News from the WTA Finals in Cancun

As Ons Jabeur burst into tears during an on-court interview at the WTA Finals in Cancun on Wednesday and announced she would be donating a portion of her prize money to Palestinian aid, many people around the world cried with her, including members of her team.

The Tunisian tennis star made a humanitarian plea, praying for an end to the bloodshed in Gaza.

“It’s very tough seeing children, babies dying every day,” said a tearful Jabeur. “It’s heartbreaking … it’s not a political message, it’s just humanity. I want peace in this world and that’s it.”

For many years, Jabeur has been referred to as the Minister of Happiness back home in Tunisia. Perhaps now, she has also become the Minister of Peace. 

“You must not lose faith in humanity. Always an honor to coach a human before the player,” wrote Jabeur’s coach Issam Jellali on social media, in the wake of his compatriot’s emotional speech.

Jellali has been Jabeur’s coach for almost four years and has helped guide her to a series of history-making feats in the sport.

With Jellali in her corner, Jabeur became the highest-ranked African singles player in tennis history — peaking at No. 2 in the world last year — and the first African or Arab woman to reach a Grand Slam final (she has made three).

The 29-year-old, currently ranked No. 7, is an icon and role model for the Arab world, Africa, and beyond, and has grown accustomed to the notion of representing something far bigger than herself. 

“She’s very happy to represent or to talk or to be there for the Arabs, Africans, Tunisians; if you ask her to do that, she’s the first one who’s in. Even if she has to play a match, she’ll go there and then go play a match,” Jellali told Arab News in an interview on the eve of the ongoing WTA Finals.

Jellali rarely speaks to the press and prefers to keep a low-profile, travelling the world with Team Jabeur, which predominantly consists of himself, Ons, and her husband/fitness trainer Karim Kamoun.

He is a true student of the game and a human encyclopedia when it comes to knowledge of Jabeur’s competitors. He says he considers himself “lucky” for getting to experience this historic ride with Jabeur.

“Before I started with Ons, the idea of seeing someone from my country playing at this level, it wasn’t just a dream, it’s like someone will slap you and say ‘wake up.’ You cannot imagine someone from your country, who is going to be No. 2 in the world or getting to the top 10, getting to three Grand Slam finals, and making it two times in a row to the WTA Finals — it’s a dream,” he mused.

While 2022 was a banner year for Jabeur, in which she won a maiden WTA 1000 title and reached two major finals at Wimbledon and the US Open, 2023 was arguably her toughest season to date, plagued by injuries and setbacks. Still, she managed to qualify to the WTA Finals for a second consecutive year as one of the top eight players in the race.

Jellali says it’s a “miracle” they made it to the season finale in Cancun, where Jabeur lost her opener to Coco Gauff but bounced back with a convincing victory over Wimbledon champion Marketa Vondrousova in her second round-robin match on Wednesday. On Friday, she will need to defeat four-time major winner Iga Swiatek in order to advance to the semifinals.

“Just before the US Open we didn’t even know if we can finish the season,” confessed Jellali. “For us, this tournament is like a win-win week. We are happy to be here. It was one of the toughest seasons. Most of the tournaments that she played she was not fit 100 percent. So we were not expecting to be here and that’s why it’s a miracle.”

From health issues to knee, back, ankle, calf, and wrist problems, Jabeur tackled one injury after the other throughout the season. Despite that, she still managed to reach a second Wimbledon final and lift two champion’s trophies in Charleston and Ningbo.

“I can tell you that as a coach, I only had three weeks in this full season where I was able to do what I want (in practice with Ons). She was not fit at all. It started from the preseason, so even the preseason we didn’t do it properly,” explained Jellali.

“I remember before our Berlin tournament, onsite we had a 20-minute practice only, we weren’t able to play, then we went straight to the match. Every week there was something and we had to deal with all this.”

The team weighed their options between pulling the plug on the season in order for her to fully recover versus sticking to the schedule and managing her injuries week by week, ensuring it was not causing any further damage.

“At this stage we know that there is a part where you need to learn how to play with the pain. Now, where she has had three consecutive seasons where she needed to play a lot of matches, which she wasn’t used to before, we’re going to get a lot of this. So we decided to continue,” said Jellali.

Besides her physical woes, the mental toll some of Jabeur’s losses took on her was perhaps even tougher to overcome. The Tunisian suffered a narrow defeat to Beatriz Haddad Maia in the French Open quarterfinals before losing a heartbreaking loss to Vondrousova in her second Wimbledon final. Jabeur looked inconsolable after that match at the All England Club and even skipped a WTA 1000 event in Canada after that to give herself time to recover emotionally and psychologically.

After losing two major finals last year, even Jellali thought this summer’s Wimbledon was going to be Jabeur’s big moment to shine and fulfill a lifelong dream.

So what did he tell her after that gut-wrenching defeat?

“I told her, ‘We lost three finals, we cannot lose four finals,’” he said with a laugh. “No, I really told her, ‘If we didn’t get this final, that means there is something missing. We are not ready to win a Grand Slam final yet and I think it’s the best motivation to keep working and to try to improve ourselves more and more.’ That’s what I told her right after the final.

“And if we think about it, it’s the reality. Even me as a coach I thought that this time is going to be the right time. We had played two previous finals and I thought that she’s ready for that. But it’s not about tennis, it’s not about rhythm, and that’s what we’re working on.”

Jellali says he “100 percent has the faith” that Jabeur will win a Grand Slam and finds it his duty to keep the whole team in a positive mindset as they pursue this historic goal together.

“It’s very simple, we are getting close, but if she didn’t get it yet, that means there is something missing, it’s obvious, it’s clear. This final made us touch the exact thing we need to get over this. So we are giving a lot of focus on that aspect,” he added. 

“Basically it’s easy to say, ‘Just be yourself.’ I want to be myself but there are many things around. So we are working on all those things coming from outside the court, playing under pressure, putting herself in situations where she needs to feel the pressure and find ways to get out of that. That’s why I say this season is very important for the next ones. We believe and trust that it’s coming insha’Allah.”

There is a certain degree of pressure that naturally comes with competing at a high level in professional sport, but Jabeur also has the added burden of constantly playing for history, as she chases one unprecedented feat after another as a Tunisian, African and Arab woman.

After every win she picks up on the big stage, an interviewer asks her about being a trailblazer and what it feels like to represent an entire continent or region.

“My personal thoughts on that are that I think it’s true that these kind of things (making history) were giving her a lot of energy. Now it’s coming back against her,” said Jellali.

“Yes, it was helping, it’s good to play for everyone, it’s good to represent the Arab world, the African continent, and everything, but now it’s becoming a lot on her shoulders. Because now she needs to deal more with what’s coming on the court.

“Whatever is coming from the outside, it’s not going to be positive anymore, it’s negative. But at the same time, you can’t take all of this away just like that. There are steps.”

Jellali, who had never coached at this top level before, feels the beauty of his journey with Team Jabeur is that they are all experiencing these big moments together for the first time. Just like Jabeur is proving to the world that a Tunisian can make it to the upper echelons of the sport, she is also showing it can be done with an all-Tunisian team, while living and training in Tunisia.

“There are more players now in Tunisia and everyone is dreaming. Because they used to see Ons go to the same school where they used to go, practicing with the same coaches, she came out from there. So it’s normal. They will say, if she did it, why can’t we do it?” he said.

As they all continue to learn together, Jellali explained how they will have a different approach to this preseason, where they will make sure Jabeur is fully fit before she gets back to training in preparation for 2024; even if it means they start later than expected.

“I think she will gain a lot from this season and I can tell you that she’s more motivated than ever,” he said.


Al-Hilal book Asian Champions League quarter-final clash with Saudi Pro League rivals Al-Ittihad

Al-Hilal book Asian Champions League quarter-final clash with Saudi Pro League rivals Al-Ittihad
Updated 23 February 2024
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Al-Hilal book Asian Champions League quarter-final clash with Saudi Pro League rivals Al-Ittihad

Al-Hilal book Asian Champions League quarter-final clash with Saudi Pro League rivals Al-Ittihad
  • After a scare when they fell behind to Sepahan of Iran, Al-Hilal rallied to win the game 3-1 and go through 6-2 on aggregate
  • With Al-Nassr winning on Wednesday and Al-Ittihad successful earlier on Thursday, Saudi Arabia has three teams in the last eight of the competition

Al-Hilal defeated Sepahan of Iran 6-2 on aggregate on Thursday to book a mouth-watering Asian Champions League quarter-final tie against Saudi Pro League rivals Al-Ittihad.

After winning the first leg 3-1 away from home last week, the four-time winners of the competition survived a scare in the second leg before comfortably clinching victory by the same scoreline.

This was a bit harsh on the visitors, who played their part in an entertaining and open clash during which both sides created plenty of chances. In the end, however, as Neymar watched from the stands, the Saudis progressed comfortably, helped along the way when Sepahan were reduced to 10 men while ahead in the second half.

Salem Al-Dawsari, making his 400th appearance for the club, got the equalizer in the 76th minute, after Farshad Ahmadzadeh put the visitors in front nine minutes after the break. With just seven minutes left on the clock, Ruben Neves came up with a spectacular strike that gave Al-Hilal the lead, and there was still time for Aleksandar Mitrovic to add a third.

In the end, it was a more comfortable result for Al-Hilal than looked likely in the 54th minute, when Ali Aarabi swung over a cross from the left and Ramin Rezaeian headed the ball back across the face of goal for Ahmadzadeh to bundle home from close range.

The sparked plenty of nerves among the home fans in the Kingdom Arena but they were able to breathe a little easier when, with 19 minutes remaining, the visitors were reduced to 10 men. Siavash Yazadni brought down Malcom as the Brazilian was running through on goal and, after a check with the video assistant referee, he was shown a straight red card.

Al-Hilal quickly took advantage of the one-man advantage when, five minutes later, Ali Al-Bulaihi found Al-Dawsari outside the area and the winger turned to beat two defenders, then stroked the ball home. At that point, the home fans could rest easy in the knowledge that their team were as good as through to the last eight.

It was a fine goal by Al-Dawsari but just six minutes later, Neves pulled something even more special out of the hat. The ball fell to the Portuguese star outside the area, he chested it down and volleyed home a curling shot that flew into the top corner.

In the final moments of added time, Mitrovic scored a goal that might not live as long in the memory but showed his killer instinct as he swept home a smart pass from Malcom to make it 3-1.

With Al-Nassr winning on Wednesday and Al-Ittihad successful earlier on Thursday, Saudi Arabia has three teams in the last eight of the competition. The showdown between Al-Ittihad and Al-Hilal is the quarter-final tie that many fans, inside and outside the country, will be most looking forward to. The first leg is scheduled for March 5.


Al-Ittihad progress to Asian Champions League quarter-finals despite early Benzema own goal

Al-Ittihad progress to Asian Champions League quarter-finals despite early Benzema own goal
Updated 22 February 2024
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Al-Ittihad progress to Asian Champions League quarter-finals despite early Benzema own goal

Al-Ittihad progress to Asian Champions League quarter-finals despite early Benzema own goal
  • The Jeddah giants leave it late but progress after a hard-fought 2-1 home victory over Navbahor of Uzbekistan

Saudi Pro League side Al-Ittihad squeezed into the quarter-finals of the Asian Champions League at the King Abdullah Sports City in Jeddah on Thursday thanks to a hard-fought 2-1 home victory over Navbahor of Uzbekistan, following a goalless draw in the first leg last week.

The Jeddah giants recovered from a Karim Bemzema own goal midway through the first half to take control of the game, level the score and eventually go through thanks to a late Navbahor own goal. It was no less than the Saudis deserved as they made most of the running and created the bulk of the chances.

Fabinho had the earliest opportunity to open the scoring but the former Liverpool midfielder fired just over the bar from outside the box.

The opening goal came from a familiar source but not in the way fans expected. The home crowd was silenced in the 25th minute when Jamshid Iskanderov floated over a free-kick from the right, and former Real Madrid star Benzema met it on the edge of the six-yard box to send a powerful header into his own net past a startled Abdullah Al-Mayouf.

The goal came out of nothing, against the run of play, but Al-Ittihad quickly regrouped, refocused their efforts and continued to dominate the game.

Benzema redeemed himself on the stroke of half-time, nodding down a corner to the near post where Abderrazak Hamdallah was waiting to sweep the ball home from close range.

The second half unfolded in much the same fashion, with Al-Ittihad enjoying most of the possession and creating more of the chances. Midway through the period, however, they were reminded of Navbahor’s goal threat when Filip Ivankovic fired just wide from the right side of the area.

With 15 minutes remaining, Benzema had the ball in the net, the correct one this time, when he fired home after some good work from Ahmed Hegazy. After a lengthy intervention, however, the video assistant referee ruled it out.

This only delayed the celebrations of the home fans, though, as three minutes from time the Tigers took a decisive lead, thanks to another own goal.

Substitute Saleh Al-Amri’s corner from the right failed to clear the first man but, in swinging a boot, Toma Tabatadze sliced his attempted clearance and the ball looped over the keeper into the far corner of the net.

Navbahor did their utmost to get back on level terms but time was against them and it was not to be. As a result, Al-Ittihad, back-to-back winners of the competition in 2004 and 2005, remain in the hunt for a third continental crown.


Saudi Arabia continue fine form with ICC World Cup Challenge League win over Kuwait

Saudi Arabia continue fine form with ICC World Cup Challenge League win over Kuwait
Updated 22 February 2024
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Saudi Arabia continue fine form with ICC World Cup Challenge League win over Kuwait

Saudi Arabia continue fine form with ICC World Cup Challenge League win over Kuwait
  • The 50-over competition serves as a preliminary qualifier for the World Cup
  • The Greens went into the opening Group B match full of confidence, having recently won the 20-over ACC Challenger Cup in Thailand

LONDON: Saudi Arabia’s cricketers beat Gulf rivals Kuwait on Thursday in the ICC Cricket World Cup Challenge League play-off in Kuala Lumpur.
The 50-over competition serves as a preliminary qualifier for the World Cup, which is to be held in South Africa, Zimbabwe and Namibia in 2027.
The Greens went into the opening Group B match full of confidence, having recently won the 20-over ACC Challenger Cup in Thailand as well as a quadrangular T20 series in Bangkok against the hosts, Maldives and Bhutan.

Saudi Arabia posted a solid total of 231 all over off the back of valuable contributions from Kashif Siddique, who scored 71 runs, star batter Abdul Waheed (40) and captain Hisham Shaikh (40).
Mohamed Shafeeq was best with the ball for Kuwait, finishing his innings with three wickets for 37 runs from his six overs.
In response, Kuwait’s batting line-up had little to offer in the face of efficient bowling from the Saudi attack.
Kuwaiti captain Mohammad Aslam showed some mettle and grit by batting for a 57-run half-century from 84 balls, but he was the only one to offer any resistance as Kuwait were bowled out for just 134 runs, some 97 runs short of the Saudi total.
Usman Najeeb was the pick of the Saudi bowlers as he picked up three wickets and conceded only 23 runs, while Ishtiaq Ahmad and skipper Shaikh claimed two wickets apiece.
In their next Group B encounter, Saudi Arabia face an Italian side riding high after beating one-time World Cup participants Bermuda by a commanding 157 runs.


Milan, Benfica and Marseille reach Europa League last 16

Milan, Benfica and Marseille reach Europa League last 16
Updated 57 min 18 sec ago
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Milan, Benfica and Marseille reach Europa League last 16

Milan, Benfica and Marseille reach Europa League last 16
  • Benjamin Bourigeaud scored a hat-trick for Rennes, including a pair of penalties
  • Benfica also saw off French opposition as a 0-0 draw away to Toulouse

PARIS: AC Milan overcame a spirited Rennes 5-3 on aggregate despite a 3-2 loss in Thursday’s playoff round second leg to reach the Europa League last 16, where they will be joined by fellow former European champions Benfica and Marseille.

Benjamin Bourigeaud scored a hat trick for Rennes, including a pair of penalties, but goals from Luka Jovic and Rafael Leao ensured Milan were never really in danger of blowing a 3-0 lead from the first leg.

Benfica also saw off French opposition as a 0-0 draw away to Toulouse was enough to send the Portuguese side through following their 2-1 victory in last week’s first leg in Lisbon.

Lens, who dropped down from the Champions League into the knockout playoff round, became the third French club to go out after Freiburg fought back from two goals down to win 3-2 after extra time.

David Pereira da Costa and Elye Wahi put Lens in control of the tie following a goalless opening leg, but Roland Sallai struck twice to force extra time in Germany.

Michael Gregoritsch grabbed the winner in the 99th minute for Freiburg.

Marseille kept French interest in the competition alive as they came from behind to beat Shakhtar Donetsk 5-3 on aggregate after a 3-1 victory at the Velodrome.

Georgiy Sudakov stroked home a penalty early in Marseille before the hosts replied via Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang’s record-setting 31st Europa League goal.

Ismaila Sarr fired Marseille ahead on 74 minutes and Geoffrey Kondogbia added a late third on Jean-Louis Gasset’s debut as coach after the departure of Gennaro Gattuso.

Last season’s runners-up Roma edged Feyenoord 4-2 on penalties in the Italian capital after 1-1 draws in both legs.

Qarabag, 4-2 winners last week away to Braga, blew a two-goal advantage after being reduced to 10 men as their Portuguese opponents took the tie to extra time in Baku.

The Azerbaijani team went back in front through Matheus Silva but it looked destined for penalties when Simon Banza’s penalty made it 3-1 on the night to Braga.

Nariman Akhundzade sent Qarabag into the next round though with a goal in the 122nd minute.

Sporting progressed 4-2 on aggregate despite a 1-1 draw at home to Swiss champions Young Boys.

Sparta Prague overturned a 3-2 first-leg deficit by scoring three times after Galatasaray’s Kaan Ayhan saw red to win the return fixture 4-1 at home.

Ajax scraped past Norwegian champions Bodo/Glimt after extra time to reach the Europa Conference League last 16.

After a 2-2 draw in Amsterdam, the Dutch giants went ahead when Steven Berghuis struck in the first half of the second leg.

But they had center-back Josip Sutalo sent off early in the second half and Patrick Berg’s equalizer took it into extra time, with Kenneth Taylor’s 114th-minute effort putting Ajax through 4-3 on aggregate.

Dinamo Zagreb knocked out Real Betis 2-1 on aggregate and Union Saint-Gilloise of Belgium took down 2022 Europa League winners Eintracht Frankfurt 4-3 over two legs.

Olympiakos also moved on along with Swiss side Servette, Norwegians Molde and Austria’s Sturm Graz.

Maccabi Haifa were the first team through after defeating Gent 2-1 on aggregate, with the second leg in Belgium on Wednesday played behind closed doors because of fears of riots linked to the Israel-Hamas war.

The draws for the last 16 of both competitions will be made at UEFA headquarters in Nyon on Friday.


Kompany driven by family history as Burnley battle drop

Kompany driven by family history as Burnley battle drop
Updated 22 February 2024
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Kompany driven by family history as Burnley battle drop

Kompany driven by family history as Burnley battle drop
  • The Clarets are on course for relegation after a 5-0 hammering at home to Arsenal left them in 19th place
  • Offering an emotional account of his inner drive, Kompany said on Thursday: “It’s a deep answer, it’s about where you come from”

LONDON: Burnley boss Vincent Kompany has revealed his father’s experiences as a political refugee give him the drive and determination to lead the club’s fight for Premier League survival.
The Clarets are on course for relegation after a 5-0 hammering at home to Arsenal left them in 19th place with just three wins this season, but Kompany’s resolve has roots far beyond the football pitch.
Explaining his hunger to succeed, the former Manchester City captain cited his father Pierre, who fled what is now the Democratic Republic of Congo for Belgium as a dissident in 1975 having protested against the dictatorship of Mobutu Sese Seko.
He put his son on the path to a glittering sporting career and later became Belgium’s first black mayor.
Offering an emotional account of his inner drive, Kompany said on Thursday: “It’s a deep answer, it’s about where you come from.
“Where I come from is my dad, who was a political refugee. He had to flee a country not just at war, but as a dictatorship where he was getting whipped in his twenties because he was against the regime over there.
“It’s fleeing from one part of the country to the other, it’s losing family members, it’s everything you’ve experienced. It’s where I come from.
“You say where does the drive and desire come from? I have so many reasons to have that fire in me every single day. So many reasons why I can’t ever do less.
“It’s bigger than one result, or a bad month, or anything like that.”
Kompany, whose side face fellow strugglers Crystal Palace on Saturday, also pushed back against the notion that this season’s struggles were a new experience for someone more accustomed to lifting silverware than fighting the drop.
“That’s the bulk of the known experiences, yeah. But a gambler never tells you about his losses, right?” he said.
“That (a serial winner) is what you see, but my experiences feel different. I do feel I’ve had to overcome and do a lot to get where I was.”