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Ons Jabeur: Tunisia's tennis trailblazer

Ons Jabeur: Tunisia's tennis trailblazer

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Doha, Qatar – Tunisia’s top tennis player Ons Jabeur is having a breakthrough year on the court and is hungry for more success. 

The 25-year-old Tunisian made history last month, becoming the first Arab woman to reach the quarter-finals of a Grand Slam.

Her deep run at the Australian Open in Melbourne, where she beat former world number one Caroline Wozniacki, catapulted Jabeur into the top 50 – the highest ranking for an Arab player in the history of women’s tennis.

A steely-eyed competitor with a versatile game, Jabeur is hoping her recent performance will raise the profile of the sport in a football-loving nation and pave the way for young girls. 

Al Jazeera spoke to the current world number 44 on the sidelines of the Qatar Total Open in Doha about her journey, being a role model for other Arab women, and her future goals.

Al Jazeera: You cracked the top 50 earlier this month, you’re the first Arab woman to reach a Grand Slam quarter-final. How is your success being received back home in Tunisia?

Ons Jabeur: It was crazy, actually, going back from Australia. It was really official with the flowers and a lot of kids, which I enjoyed a lot. I can see people getting more interested in me, in tennis in general, which makes me happy. And I hope, that not only me, but many players could get the support they deserve from our country and tennis could be more famous.

Al Jazeera: Tunisia is not necessarily known to have a big tennis history. So how did you get into the sport?

Jabeur: We have a lot of courts, especially in hotels. So, I started playing because my mom used to go there and she loved tennis and her love for tennis made me also love tennis, which is unbelievable. I’m grateful for her to introduce me to this amazing sport.

My coaches at the beginning told me that I had something different from other girls. But I think I had a dream. I had a dream to become a good player.

Al Jazeera: You trained in Tunisia most of your junior years. At the Australian Open, you said you’re a 100-percent Tunisian product. Did you have any idols growing up?

Jabeur: I loved watching [former world number one] Andy Roddick play. I was trying to get inspired by his serve, his character on the court. I also watched a few other girls – Justine Henin, Kim Clijsters and Serena [Williams]. Now it’s unbelievable because I see them all the time and I could actually compete against them, so that was my inspiration. But I think my family supported me a lot and gave me a lot of hope to become one of the good players.

Al Jazeera: Let’s talk about your team. Were your parents in your box last night [first round on Sunday]?

Jabeur: Yeah, they were, for the first time.

Al Jazeera: They’re not a regular feature at tournaments?

Jabeur: No, they stress a lot and I think they want to be behind the TV or follow the live score [laughs]. That’s easier for them.

Also, there is my fitness coach, my husband Karim, my Tunisian coach, Issam [Jellali]. I’m happy with a 100 percent Arabic team and hopefully, we can achieve a lot of good things.

Al Jazeera: You come from a Muslim country that is fairly conservative in terms of culture and dress code. Did you have any challenges or barriers in order to pursue your career as a Muslim athlete?

Jabeur: Not really. 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.

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.

Al Jazeera: In the early 2000s, there was a time when Morocco had three top players on the men’s tour at the same time – Younes el-Aynaoui, Hicham Arazi and Karim Alami – and then you also had Selima Sfar coming out of Tunisia before you. But historically, over the years, we haven’t seen a lot of big Arab names from the North African region playing on the professional circuit, at the Grand Slam level. Why do you think that’s the case?

Jabeur: I think a lack of experience and not being in the professional world. I made a lot of mistakes but I had to earn it the hard way. I have learned with experience what suits me as a player. I think maybe in the future I could help some Tunisians who want to be in the top level, share my experience and really give good advice.

Al Jazeera: Do you feel that, as the top Arab and Muslim player, you have a responsibility to be a role model for not just Tunisians but other Arab and Muslim girls all over the world?

Jabeur: Of course. I feel like I have to give a good example. I’m trying to play good and also behaving on the court is very important to give a good image for any woman or any other tennis player from the Arabic world or Africa.

Nothing is impossible and I believe if someone believes in their dream, they could achieve it and they should work hard for it.

Al Jazeera: Looking ahead, what goals are you setting for yourself? What more would you like to achieve?

Jabeur: I want to be in the top 20 this year. I always say that I want to number one and win a Grand Slam. I think it’s possible. I just have to put a few things in order with hard work and trusting myself and my ability to play good.

This interview was edited for clarity and brevity. 

This article was originally published by Al Jazeera.

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