Ons Jabeur, Tunisia's 'Minister of Happiness' on Verge of Wimbledon Title

Published July 7th, 2022 - 05:04 GMT
Tunisia's Ons Jabeur celebrates after defeating Greece's Maria Sakkari during their quarter finals match at the WTA Rome Open tennis tournament on May 13, 2022 at Foro Italico in Rome. (Photo by Tiziana FABI / AFP)
Tunisia's Ons Jabeur celebrates after defeating Greece's Maria Sakkari during their quarter finals match at the WTA Rome Open tennis tournament on May 13, 2022 at Foro Italico in Rome. (Photo by Tiziana FABI / AFP)

Ons Jabeur, who on Thursday became the first African woman in the Open era to reach a Grand Slam singles final, has emerged as a national hero at home in Tunisia.

Since reaching the world's top 50 at the Australian Open in January 2020, she has surged up the rankings to become world number two.

She bagged her latest victory on Thursday to secure a place in the final at Wimbledon, beating her friend Tatjana Maria 6-2, 3-6, 6-1.

"It's a dream coming true from years and years of work and sacrifice," the 27-year-old, dubbed 'Minister of Happiness' by fans, told the crowd.

On Saturday, she will face Elena Rybakina for the Wimbledon title.

"I'm a proud Tunisian woman standing here today and I know in Tunisia they're going crazy right now. I'm just trying to inspire as much as I can," she added.

Her victories have been a rare good news story for a North African country mired in economic and political crisis, made more acute by the coronavirus pandemic and the impact of the war in Ukraine.

Jabeur has leveraged her growing international profile to make a difference.

Last summer, she sold two of her racquets to raise $27,000 (23,000 euros) for hospitals buckling under a heavy wave of Covid-19 cases, with acute shortages of oxygen, staff and intensive care beds.

"For me, it was my duty to help my country," she said.

When she arrived at Wimbledon, she announced that for every ace or drop shot she hit throughout the tournament, her Tunisian sponsor, IT firm Talan Tunisie, would pay out 100 euros towards renovating a high school in a neglected region of north-western Tunisia.

She has also sought to promote her country on the world stage. After winning the Berlin WTA singles title in June, she persuaded the DJ to play music by her favourite Tunisian singer, Balti.

She has also developed a reputation as a fun, humourous presence on the court.

"I love the big stage. I'm a little bit of a show-off. I love to connect with the crowd," she wrote in a column for BBC Sport this week.

She often wears a t-shirt, designed by her Italian sponsor Lotto, reading "Yalla habibi" ("Come on, my love" in Arabic).

'The warrior'

But underneath lies a steely determination.

"In 2019, I told my team I'd had enough of being ranked 60th and that I wanted to be among the best players in the world," she told AFP last year, adding that after she had reached the Australian Open quarter-finals, "other players have started to fear playing me."

Born in 1994 in Ksar Hellal, Jabeur started her career as a child on hotel tennis courts in the resort town of Hammam Sousse.

At the age of 10, she told her mother that one day she would "drink a coffee at Roland Garros", the French Open, according to her first trainer, Nabil Mlika.

"And so she did. It's magical," he told AFP.

At the age of 12, she joined a sports academy in the capital Tunis.

Omar Laabidi, her adolescent hitting partner, says she always showed a fighting spirit.

"What you see of Ons on the court, the warrior, the fighter who battles for every point, that's always been her character," he said.

Jabeur's ability to bounce back from adversity has been particularly evident in recent weeks.

Despite crashing out in the first round of the French Open in May, she surged back to win the Berlin WTA title the following month.

She also played alongside 23-time Grand Slam singles champion Serena Williams in Eastbourne, an opportunity she called "unbelievable".

And despite an ankle injury that ended the pair's run, she has fought her way to the threshold of her first Grand Slam triumph.

"Wimbledon reminds me of a wedding. I love the history and the traditions, like the all-white kit and everybody eating strawberries," she added in her BBC column this week.

She said she liked to play "with slice and changes of rhythm."

"I don't like routine much. That's why I don't do the same shot very often," she said.

She told AFP last year that her childhood dream was "to win titles in the big competitions".

"I know very well that I'm not far off," she said.

"During my career, plenty have doubted my ability to ever reach this level, but my belief in myself and my work have allowed me to move forward."

By Aymen Jamli and Paul Raymond
AFP


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