Tennis as a sport has long lent itself to artistic expression. In the decades gone by, many players have come to be seen as virtuosos, with parts of their games having acquired cult status.
Martina Navratilova’s athleticism, Steffi Graf’s grace, John McEnroe’s volleying, Justine Henin’s court-craft, Fabrice Santoro’s magic hands, Agnieszka Radwanska’s imagination and the whole of Roger Federer’s oeuvre… the list can go on.
In a heavily coached sport, where strokes and playing styles mostly follow pre-set templates and set-in-stone methods, these players have given the impression that tennis can sometimes be more art than science. Prototypes are still commonplace, but there is space for the iconoclasts and independent thinkers, too.
Ons Jabeur, a self-confessed romantic, is the latest entrant in this exotic list. Friendly, charming and always sporting a big smile, the 28-year-old Tunisian is among the most creative of today’s tennis players.
She is ranked No. 4 in the world and on Sunday triumphed at the Charleston Open (WTA 500) by beating Switzerland’s Belinda Bencic, earning her first title of the season, her second on clay and the fourth of her career. Having struggled with a knee injury since the Australian Open, it was Jabeur’s return to her competitive best.
And if those gasps and yelps from many an onlooker, when Jabeur came up with breathtaking drop shots, ingenious slices and trick shots, including the front-facing tweener, are enough of a barometer, she might just be this era’s ticket to tennis as ‘religious experience’.
Jabeur’s stock has largely been built on her superlative performance in the 2022 season. She excelled on clay, making the final at Charleston, winning in Madrid (WTA 1000) and finishing runner-up in Rome (WTA 1000) to Iga Swiatek.
Though she crashed out in the first round at Roland-Garros, she quickly dusted it off to win on grass at Berlin and made a captivating run to the final at Wimbledon, where her finesse and feel for the surface stood out.
Jabeur’s success wasn’t limited to the natural surfaces. At the US Open, she reached her second Major final, losing to top-ranked Swiatek but not before firmly establishing her credentials as the foremost challenger to the Pole’s status as tennis’ undisputed No.1.
What aided this was a silken all-court game. At 5’6”, Jabeur is diminutively built compared to her peers and doesn’t possess the big serve which could have given her the first-mover advantage.
But she compensates with her intelligence, hitting a dazzling array of shots at varying trajectories and angles. Jabeur’s tennis is cerebral and witty, something that is said to have been her trademark as far back as 2011 when she won the junior French Open singles title. She didn’t give up on the approach despite taking six more years to break into the WTA top-100.
Comfortable on dirt
If on grass she uses the slice to great effect, on clay, her drop shots and variations — even when devoid of top-spin — help her exploit all areas of the court. In fact, since the start of the 2020 season, Jabeur has won 38 matches on clay, the most by any player on Tour, one more than Swiatek, who won both the 2020 and 2022 Roland-Garros crowns.
“I just want to continue with this attitude, with this game,” Jabeur told Tennis Channel after the Charleston triumph. “I am glad that I am finding rhythm and I hope my body will allow me to play.
“I am excited to go to Stuttgart, Madrid and Rome. Clay is really amazing and I love it. I am working on a lot of things and it is going my way, step by step. I am going for the Grand Slam this year. We will start with one and go on to the multiple.”
If she does, an already trailblazing career will hit greater heights. Jabeur comes from a part of the world where tennis is, at best, a hinterland sport. In North Africa, football is all the rage. Liverpool’s Mo Salah was reportedly favoured by over a million people in the 2018 Egyptian Presidential election when he wasn’t even a candidate.
But such has been Jabeur’s influence — first Tunisian to reach a WTA final (Moscow 2018), to make a Slam quarterfinal (2020 Australian Open), to crack the top-50 (February 2020), to win a WTA title (Birmingham 2021) and to secure a WTA 1000 title (Madrid 2022) — that, according to newspaper reports, there are now “dozens of mini Onses chasing down balls or practising their forehand each evening” back in Tunisia.
Abdullah Shelbayh is a Jordanian tennis player ranked 265 in the world. In February this year, the 19-year-old became the youngest Arab in history to reach the final of an ATP Challenger event. Both Shelbayh and Jabeur were coached by a certain Rafik Bouchlaka in their formative years.
“He [Bouchlaka] always gave me examples of how Ons worked and how badly she wanted it,” Shelbayh told Arab News. “Ons was his example always, which motivated me a lot.
“Now, it’s great to have someone like her in the Arab world at the top of the game. It’s incredible to have, for the first time ever, someone that high in the ranking. I hope I can be there as well and hope I can learn a lot from her.”
A force for advancement
It is perhaps apt that Jabeur is a tennis player, for the sport has often been a force for advancement. The Grand Slam tournaments pay men and women equally — something Jabeur wants in every tennis event — and no other sport produces as many male and female global champions. This sits well with her higher “mission” of inspiring women and elevating the game.
However, the history-making star and transformative champion doesn’t feel burdened and remains as focused on the on-court job. She is now part of a WTA Tour that seems to have finally settled down. It has a dominant force in Swiatek and a pecking order. If Swiatek and Jabeur formed a duopoly last year, the likes of Aryna Sabalenka, Elena Rybakina and Jessica Pegula have joined the party this season.
“Both Wimbledon and US Open were tough losses for me and I learnt a lot,” Jabeur told The Guardian. “But it always takes me time. I won my first WTA tournament after losing a few finals. Maybe it will be the same for a Grand Slam. I want to maintain a great level so I can maybe dominate the WTA tour.”