Ons Jabeur: "I Dream Big," says Tunisian tennis star ahead of US Open

A successful junior, Ons Jabeur is making her move in the pro ranks at age 25, while the Arab tennis world watches her and aims emulate the success she’s had at the highest levels.

15 min By Nick McCarvel
Ons Jabeur thanks her fans on court, Feb. 2020

Tunisian tennis star Ons Jabeur knows she represents hope for Arab female athletes around the world in sport. It’s one of the many spotlights she doesn’t shy away from.

“My dream is to see a lot more Arab players on tour playing well,” she tells Olympic Channel in an exclusive interview.

“And to be honest, I think it's not impossible now.”

Nothing feels impossible for Jabeur, who at 25 is hitting her stride on the WTA tour, ranked a career-high No.39 as tennis makes a return to play with two back-to-back events held in New York City under strict COVID-19 protocols. Cincinnati, relocated, is underway, with the US Open to follow.

“I dream big,” says the two-time Olympian in regard to her expectations over the coming weeks, breaking into a smile when mentioning she’d already made it as far as a major quarter-final, which she accomplished earlier this season at the Australian Open. By doing so, she became the first Arab woman to complete such a feat in singles.

“I started the tournament by having a small meeting with my team and said that I wanted to reach the top 20 by the end of the season,” she says of January. “I was ready. And then I think my whole mindset changed. I wanted it to go as far as I (could at) the Australian Open.”

Jabeur did just that, beating former top 5 players Johanna Konta and Caroline Garcia before ending the career of former world No.1 and 2018 Aus Open winner Caroline Wozniacki, who had announced retirement plans. Jabeur would lose in the quarters to the eventual champion, Sofia Kenin of the U.S.

While top 20 is one goal and having as long of a stay in NYC as possible is another, there are plenty more for Jabeur – though she’s not sharing what, exactly. Having started playing tennis at age 3 because of her mother’s love for the sport, she was a 2010 Youth Olympian at the inaugural YOG in Singapore at age 15, and the following year won the junior title at the French Open.

It’s taken Jabeur longer than some of her contemporaries to find her range in the pro ranks because of her brand of tennis: She’s creative on court, using angles and spin, variety and depth. In power-punching, modern day tennis, she’s crafty. If her confidence goes, so too does her tennis – but never count her out.

Having broken into the top 100 in 2017, Jabeur has stayed there since, with her Australia wins bumping her to No.45. Successful runs in front of boisterous crowds in both Dubai and Doha helped her reach the top 40 before tennis was halted in mid-March. But she’d like to pick up right where she left off.

“It was really a powerful moment for me,” Jabeur says of those two weeks in February.

Ons Jabeur thanks her fans on court, Feb. 2020
Ons Jabeur thanks her fans on court, Feb. 2020

In a wide-ranging Instagram live interview, Jabeur shared with Olympic Channel her recent success in depth, those aforementioned dreams, her hope for Arab athletes both male and female and the mentality she takes with her each time she walks onto a tennis court.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

Inside the US Open 'bubble'

Olympic Channel: Ons, thank you for joining us. First, tell us about how you are doing. You’re in New York City at your hotel in the “bubble.” How has it been?
Ons Jabeur:
I got tested as soon as I came here and then got tested again. And after 48 hours… I was allowed in. So, yeah, they are being pretty strict about it. We don't leave the bubble. So, from the hotel to the (tournament) site and then back again, (but) everything is available here. The (physical) recovery, the food. Everything.

To be honest, it's little bit tough, because we used to go to Manhattan, you know, like chill around the city, see some friends. But now we cannot have that; we have to be like one hundred percent focused. Let's see how it goes. Everyone is respecting (it), which is good. And I hope everybody stays safe.

OC: What went into your decision to come and play the Open? Many players opted not to, including defending champs Rafael Nadal and Bianca Andreescu and six of the top 10 women.
I started like, really, really well this season. I said it’s a waste if I don't come and try and finish (the season) playing like this. I also have a personal goal that I cannot say right now, but hopefully if I can achieve and really be able to achieve my (other) goals I could be able to be satisfied with myself.

OC: What are those short-term goals? For the Cincinnati event in New York and the US Open?
To be honest, I think I have the level to go as far as I can here in Cincinnati. It's really nice to be here. Maybe it's better to stay the whole two or three weeks in New York**.**

"Honestly, I think I can I can go far in this tournament. I proved myself, that could I could do good. I've been in the quarter (-finals in Australia), so my goal is to arrive to the finals. So why not win the title?" (Smiling.)

OC: You mention Australia there, so let’s go back to that magical run, where you won four matches to make the last 8, making history as the first Arab woman to do so at one of tennis’ four Grand Slams. In the third round you played Wozniacki, who had announced this would be her farewell event. What was that like?

Jabeur: I was trying to focus more on myself than her ending her career. I wanted to win and wanted to maybe start my career in a way… it was time for me to be able to show myself to the world. And it was a great match. I was really stressed at sometimes. But, you know, Caroline, she plays really well… she’s never easy. I'm happy that I pulled out the win… it was one of the greatest moments (for me).

"I just regret one thing: Not exchanging rackets with Caroline. I mean, it's just really an honor for me (to play her)."

OC: You created quite the buzz in Australia. What was the attention like back at home during that Australian Open run?

Jabeur: We (haven’t had) many Arabic players or African players winning at Grand Slams. It was a big breakthrough for Tunisia. They were really happy to see someone winning this kind of a (tennis matches). It was great… in juniors I had been (successful), but the transition was kind of tough for me. Playing juniors is not the same as playing pro, obviously, and it's OK to learn the hard way. (In Australia) I felt, ‘I'm ready to go and really show myself, show my on my game.’

OC: Right. You had played the Youth Olympic Games in Singapore in 2010 and then won the Roland-Garros juniors the next year. You were a teenager. Why do you think it too you as long as it did to get to this level on the WTA?

Jabeur: Sometimes maybe having the option to do a lot of things (on court) does not help. (Laughing.) It was kind of tough for me. But I mean, to be honest, I don't regret a thing.

I've learned a lot from over the years of this trend. From the juniors to pro, I faced a lot of great players with more experience than me. I was lucky enough to have had wild cards in Doha and Dubai, when I was younger and faced players to see how they are practicing. So, for me, it was a really great chance to be able to be one of the pros and one of the best, to see how they work.

OC: What is the support like for you? For Arab women and Tunisian female athletes in particular?

Jabeur: To be honest, the Tunisia public has really been following me since the Roland-Garros junior title in 2011. They were there for me. I mean, I love to see the fans in Tunisia… I've seen a lot of insane pictures in the cafe at 4am, people following (my matches).

Tennis in Tunisia

OC: Do you try and pay that back? How do you see your role as a successful female Arab and Tunisian athlete?
Well, sometimes when I go practice, especially lately, I go to some club to practice there. There were some young girls, tennis players that wanted to play.

You know, it's always fun to play with them for even five minutes. They always look for me and come ask me some questions about tennis. And I try to answer… (but) I love it. I always try, even in my interviews, to give the example to say like nothing is impossible.

The most important thing is to believe in yourself. And if you believe you can, you can do it. Then you will probably get people who will say, ‘You can’t do it.’ And that it's impossible. But I think (the belief) always has to come from inside if you really believe it's going to happen, you know?

OC: You started tennis at age 3, is that right?

Jabeur: My mom always wanted to play tennis, and since I was the youngest of my brothers and sisters, she took me with her to the tennis club. I saw her playing and then I grabbed the rackets. I wanted to play also. And I was a troublemaker. She had to let me do something to be quiet. I wanted my mom to put me like as a member then and (let me play).

I started travelling at age 10. Then I moved to Tunis because I'm from Sousse, and it was two hours driving by car. I studied and played tennis at the same time (in Tunis). It was kind of a challenge for a 13-year-old to be far away from home… and tough to be waking up at 5am, practicing and staying there until 8 or 9 at night. They were very challenging moments, but I think I had to go through that to be able to become the person I am today.

OC: In 2010 you played the inaugural Youth Olympic Games in Singapore. You were 15. What do you remember from that event, and how much confidence did it give you for moving forward?

Jabeur: I remember it was very humid in their conditions, but it was fun. (Laughing.) The was the first Olympics for me, to be honest.

It was great. I remember because the food was amazing in the village and we were there with all the athletes from all the different sports. It was a first great experience; I loved it. And it was amazing because you see all the players you see (now) in the Grand Slams. It was one of my best experiences.

OC: What if we fast-forward to London 2012? You make the Olympics but come up against Sabine Lisicki first, who at that time was a top, top player.

Jabeur: I was proud. To be able to play and fight against a really good player like Sabine… and nobody knew me that time. I tried to use my game, to slice and change it up a little bit… But to be honest, I mean, that was a great experience for me, and I wanted to win the first one. But I think it wasn't enough; I didn’t have the level enough to win on that day.

OC: We were trying to find footage of you from the Opening Ceremony in 2012… or 2016. Did you go?
No… I’m a little bit paranoid with, like, standing up a lot. (Laughs.)

But I mean, I would love to go because I know that there is a lot of players who want to go there. This is a good experience. I think both times I was playing the next day, which was unfortunate. But maybe next time?

OC: You obviously represent your country wherever you go, but is there a special pride in playing “for” Tunisia at the Olympics versus just yourself on the WTA?
Yeah. The Olympics are always about representing my country. It's very important for me as (I’m from) a small country; everybody is following me. It’s part of me to represent Tunisia: I'm not just playing for myself; I’m playing for everyone back in Tunisia and the Arab world. I'm super proud and honoured to represent my country.

It's a very nice feeling, especially being surrounded by different athletes from different sports, but the same country. I really cannot wait to go and play in Tokyo next year.

Ons Jabeur, girls junior champion at French Open, 2011
Ons Jabeur, girls junior champion at French Open, 2011

ITF support; Arab players on the rise

OC: The International Tennis Federation hands out grants to players from smaller tennis nations to help them with expenses like traveling and coaching, a program called the Grand Slam Development Fund. You’ve received said money in the past. How impactful has that been for you?
In 2017, it was the first time I broke into the top 100. It was really important for me to be able to pay my staff, to pay a coach. You know, tennis is expensive and you need a lot of money to travel. I'm still grateful for this fund from the ITF and the way they helped me. I mean, I'm honestly so grateful for that. It was like an amazing year for me, playing without stress about the money.

I could play stress-free… I felt stable. I was able to really play a lot of great tournaments. And, yeah, it was really good timing from them… the ITF has been there for me since day one, even from juniors. They knew how serious I am and how badly I wanted to become one of the best players in the world.

OC: Selima Sfar was top 100 in the early 2000s, but now with you in the top 40, your countryman Malek Jaziri having the success he has… What’s the Arab community of pro tennis players like?
I love seeing Arab players on tour with me. Malek, I hope he's coming back now and seeing (Mohamed) Safwat now playing in Europe.

There's also another group (of players that has been) really good lately. I hope we can inspire anyone in the Arab world to become one of the best players… it’s not impossible. We did it.

From practicing on court to being playing tournaments back in Tunisia or in Egypt, we worked hard, and we believed in ourselves… And now we are here.

The young generation is much more motivated. I can see back in Tunisia, I can see that there is a lot of young, talented players and I hope I can really inspire them. And one day I can share my experience and show them the way… and (how) not make the same mistakes as me. (Laughing.)

I'm always open to do that talking to the young generation as much as I can. I try and share my experience with them and (give) any tips I can give.

A doctor, chocolate, and Eminem...

OC: How have you faced the challenges that COVID-19 have offered? Both mentally and physically?
Yeah, it was it was tough at the beginning. You feel like you don't have any control. First of all, you don’t know when you're coming back, which is tough, and then you're practicing but there is no motivation, no tournaments to prepare for. It's kind of tough. Obviously, I was sad that they postponed Tokyo (Olympic Games), but at the same time, maybe it was a good opportunity now for athletes to know that they had more time to prepare.

So, for me, it was a good time to rest a little bit and then be able to practice and improve what I had to improve, you know, during this time.

We’re trying to improve more mentally and physically. I've worked a lot on myself on trying to improve a lot of things… I need to be able to manage my emotions on the court. To be able to be a calmer player and have more confidence in myself. It was kind of good timing for me to be able to be more spiritual, to meditate more, and to be able to take this situation as a test. To be able to improve (during quarantine) was very important for me.

OC: Thinking of that, what’s one mentality you always try to have with you when you walk on court?
I always try to go and win the match. I feel like if you have a good mindset and you believe that you could win this match, then the universe will listen to you and all the possibilities for you to win the match. I try to focus more on myself than the (other) player. I know I have the game to be able to disturb a lot of players. I really try to focus on that.

I think I really have the level to go in and make trouble for most of the players.

OC: Quick fire to finish… what music are you listening to pre-match?
Jabeur: I listen to everything. From Eminem to Beethoven…

OC: One guilty pleasure on tour?
Chocolate. I love chocolate.

OC: And if you weren’t a tennis player, you would have been...
I always aspired to be a doctor. Now I would need to study a lot…

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