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Ons Jabeur: Who is Wimbledon's trailblazing Tunisian tennis sensation?

From training in Tunisia's coastal resorts to becoming the first Arab woman in a Grand Slam quarter final, Tunisian tennis star continues unlikely rise
Tunisia's Ons Jabeur celebrates her win over Poland's Iga Swiatek in the fourth round of the women's singles at Wimbledon (AFP)

On Tuesday, 26-year-old Tunisian tennis star Ons Jabeur took to Wimbledon’s centre court as the first Arab woman to ever compete in a Wimbledon quarter final. 

Jabeur is often described as a trailblazer: breaking new ground for Tunisians, Arabs and Africans alike with every new advancement and achievement in her career. 

"I always try to give that message to young generations coming from Tunisia, from the Arab world, to believe in themselves and to believe that they could be here in my place one day," Jabeur said last week.

She eventually lost to second seed Aryana Sabalenka, but not before beating three former Grand Slam winners - Venus Williams, Garbine Muguruza and Iga Swiatek - over the past eight days, wowing and winning over the Wimbledon crowd along the way. 

Her story is now being closely followed by millions across the world, as the young girl who once trained in resorts along Tunisia's coast fast becomes one of the biggest stars in tennis. 

String of 'firsts' for Arab women

Jabeur was born in Ksar Hellal, a small town in northeastern Tunisia, and grew up in the nearby larger coastal city of Sousse. 

At the age of three, she was introduced to tennis by her mother, who played the sport recreationally. She often trained in hotels and tourist resorts, owing to the lack of courts in local tennis clubs.  

Jabeur began competing in national tournaments aged six, and internationally four years later. Aged 12, she moved 90 miles to the capital Tunis where she trained at Lycée Sportif El Menzah, a multi-sport national academy for emerging Tunisian talents. 

“My mum used to drive me everywhere around Tunisia to go play the tournaments, and she encouraged me to go to a special school to study,” Jabeur said. 

“That was a big sacrifice to see her little girl going for a dream that, honestly, wasn't 100 percent guaranteed. She believed in me and gave me the confidence to be there. I support every girl who wants to be there one day.”

She made her debut in a junior Grand Slam tournament at the US Open in 2009, and the following year reached the final of the junior French Open. 

It was in 2011 when she came to international attention, winning the French Open girls’ championship to become the first ever Arab woman to win a junior Grand Slam title. 

Since then, the former child prodigy has gone on to continue setting records and entering uncharted territory. 

In 2017, she became the second Arab woman to break into the world’s top 100, and is now the highest ranked woman from the region in history. 

Last year, her run to the quarter final of the Australian Open was the furthest a North African and Arab woman has ever reached in a Grand Slam, matched only by her run at this year's Wimbledon. 

In June, she won the first Women's Tennis Association (WTA) title of her career, defeating  Daria Kasatkina to win the 2021 Birmingham Classic. In doing so, she became the first Tunisian and Arab to win a WTA title. 

'Onstoppable'

She is currently coached by former Tunisian Davis Cup player Issam Jellali, and her Tunisian-Russian husband Karim Kamoun, a former fencer, has been her fitness coach since 2017. 

“I’m happy with a 100 percent Arabic team and hopefully, we can achieve a lot of good things,” she told Al Jazeera. 

Jabeur’s Wimbledon run has been hailed a huge success in Tunisia, where "Onstoppbale" trended on Twitter last week. 

“Ons Jabeur has joined the greats,” read the headline in Tunisian newspaper Al Chorouk, as the 26-year-old’s progress made the front pages. 

“Our warm congratulations to the champion Ons Jabeur after her qualification to the quarter-finals of Wimbledon,” wrote Rached Ghannouchi, the Tunisian Parliament Speaker. 

Tunisia is currently undergoing a third wave of the coronavirus pandemic, and many on social media have hailed Jabeur for helping lift spirits. 

"We have our official supplier of happiness, the only one who helps us to forget our gloomy news in Tunisia: bravo Ons Jabeur," tweeted journalist Marwen Ben Mustapha.

Translation: In light of the difficult health situation Tunisia is facing now, and the mental health conditions many people are facing as a result of the pandemic - there is some positive news from the ground in Wimbledon for our country Tunisia. It fills us with the pride of Tunisia. #Ons_Jabeur. A great match on all levels and she will be qualifying onto the fourth round, which she completely deserves.

Jabeur has often spoken about the support she has received from Tunisians, and that she faced few barriers as a Muslim athlete. 

“I haven’t had any problems. Yeah, some people will probably comment on my outfit but I ignore [it], because so many people are sometimes attacking. I try not to look at the negative side of it,” she said.

“We are actually very open-minded in Tunisia and we support women to achieve in sports or any other levels, so I’m really proud. And I think it’s a minority of people who make it uncomfortable for me or for any other player.”

In 2019, the Tunisian athlete was awarded the honour of Arab Woman of the Year at a ceremony organised by NGO London Arabia. 

As well as her Arab background, Jabeur is well aware of her breaking the glass ceiling for African athletes too. 

“Sometimes when we play Fed Cup, some African teams come and they want to take pictures, they ask me about how I’m playing. It’s really inspiring for me,” she told the Guardian. 

“When someone tells me that I’m inspiring them, it gives me more motivation to practise and be more of an example. I hope we can see more players from Africa on the tour.”

Wimbledon success 

The Tunisian’s entertaining style of play and likeability has won her new fans during the past week at Wimbledon. 

Jabeur's expansive shot selection - including daring drop shots, her court coverage during long rallies, and her determination in turning matches around from losing positions - have earned lengthy rounds of applause from the SW19 crowds. 

Her light hearted nature - doing keepie-uppies with her feet between points, and excitedly reacting to praise from her childhood hero Andy Roddick - have also warmed audiences around the world.

Jabeur’s record-breaking path has been recognised by other tennis stars, including five-time Wimbledon champion Venus Williams, who she defeated in the second round.

“Ons I would say is one of my favourite people on tour, honestly she's just breaking down barriers. The first woman from her country to do anything that she’s doing," the 41-year-old said ahead of their clash in London last week. 

“You're gonna see a whole other generation of women from North Africa coming into tennis. It's going to be all owed to her,” Williams added. 

“You can’t limit her to just inspiring women in the Arab region. She’s inspiring all kinds of women, including me.”

Though her Wimbledon journey may have come to an end, fans will hope that its only a matter of time before Jabeur become the first Arab and Tunisian woman to win a tennis Grand Slam.

This article is available in French on Middle East Eye French edition.