Ons Jabeur | Minister of happiness

The trailblazing Tunisian wants to inspire both her country and continent into becoming a tennis superpower

July 10, 2022 02:02 am | Updated 05:48 pm IST

After reaching the Wimbledon final on Thursday, Ons Jabeur was asked for her views on Boris Johnson’s resignation as British Prime Minister. The 27-year-old, in what will go down as one of the best press-conference lines ever, said with a chuckle, “I don’t really know, but I am the Minister of Happiness.”

Witty, affable and ever-smiling, Jabeur captivated the world these past two weeks, both with her tennis and personality. On Saturday, she came agonisingly close to becoming the first Arab and first African woman in the Open Era (from 1968) to win a Grand Slam title, before falling short.

It may not have ended in glory for Jabeur, but the performance capped a splendid trailblazing run. Professional tennis’s individualism doesn’t necessarily sit well with nationalism. But in developing countries, sporting stars often have outsized national identities.

Jabeur first gained prominence at home way back in 2011 when she won the junior crown at the French Open. It took her another six years to break into top-100 and a further year to reach a maiden WTA tournament final (Moscow, 2018).

But progress in the last two years has been at breakneck pace. Jabeur became the first Tunisian to make a Grand Slam quarterfinal (Australian Open, 2020) and to crack the top-50. In 2021, she won a title at Birmingham on grass and subsequently broke into the top-10, both firsts for her nation.

This year, at the Mutua Madrid Open in May, she became the first Arab player to win a WTA 1000 trophy, just a rung lower than the flagship Major events. She is now ranked No.2 in the world, below Poland’s Iga Swiatek.

On a mission

“I see myself like I’m on a mission,” Jabeur told The Guardian, ahead of Wimbledon. “I chose to inspire people and really get more and more generations here. I don’t see it as a burden; it’s a great pleasure and responsibility. It’s part of why I am playing today. And I do believe in sharing. Sharing could help me, help me as a player and help the other generations.”

The evidence of this is seemingly on the ground, back in Tunisia, where enrolment in tennis academies has reportedly grown rapidly. In a football-mad country, Jabeur has created an enduring legacy for herself, with courts being filled with “dozens of mini Onses chasing down balls or practising their forehand each evening”, as a newspaper put it.

“It’s always about Tunisia somehow, but I want to go bigger, inspire many more generations,” Jabeur said. “Tunisia is connected to the Arab world; it’s connected to the African continent. It’s not like Europe or any other country.

“I want to see more players from my country, from the Middle East, from Africa. I think we didn’t believe enough at a certain point that we can do it. Now I’m just trying to show that.”

Even as her story has inspired and moved people, Jabeur’s game has both her fans and peers excited. At 5’6”, she is diminutively built, by tennis standards. But what she may lack in pure power, she makes up with a dazzling array of strokes of varying trajectories and angles. So much so that in her junior days, she used to be called ‘Roger Federer’.

Her excellence on grass this season (12 wins to one loss) hasn’t come as a surprise. Like the recently retired Ash Barty, she employs the slice to devastating effect, a quintessential grass-court tenet. A steady serve, a solid forehand and a two-fisted backhand drive to complement her slice make her game well-rounded. No wonder Jabeur was the legendary Serena Williams’ chosen one as doubles partner when the American made her comeback ahead of Wimbledon.

And Jabeur’s ability to explore all areas of the court, with potent variations and drop shots, makes her solid on clay as well. In fact, of the four warm-up events prior to Roland-Garros 2022, she won one and finished a finalist in two others. Along with eventual champion Swiatek, she was the presumptive favourite at the French Open, but surprisingly lost in the opening round.

But to quickly dust that loss off, pick up the pieces and carry the hopes of her nation once again, at what is considered the most prestigious tournament in tennis, speaks volumes about her mental make-up. For all the pressure, there has been no sense of strain, just boundless energy. Her grace and humility have stood out, both in victory and defeat. ‘Minister of Happiness’ she indeed is.

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