US Open, Regional Expansion
With the U.S. Open coming to a close last Sunday, September 10, conversations have been filled with new and existing household names — European players such as Novak Djokovic and Carlos Alcaraz and American players such as Ben Sheldon, Taylor Fritz, and Coco Gauff. However, although it is an exciting time for such players to continue to dominate the stage, players from the Middle East such as Ons Jabeur and Mayar Sherif are making strong strides for their region.
For context, the U.S. Open, established in 1881, has included many “firsts” for tennis such as allowing professionals and amateurs to compete together, scheduling night games, paying men and women players equally, and having the biggest payout. The annual tournament takes place in New York City every late August to early September. It is the last annual Grand Slam event and brings players from around the globe to compete for the largest “tennis purse.” Tunisian player Ons Jabeur, specifically, fought until the fourth round of the 2023 US Open. Although she faced defeat earlier than hoped, her strides up until now have not gone unnoticed.
Who is Ons Jabeur?
29-year-old Tunisian tennis player Ons Jabeur has made history by becoming the first Arab to win a WTA 1000 event in 2022 and to reach a major quarter-final in the Australian Open in 2020.
In June 2022, she ranked second in the world. She was runner-up in Wimbledon 2023 and the US Open 2022, making her the first Arab and Muslim to reach the semi-finals of a Grand Slam. Along with her success on the court, she earned the title “Tunisia’s Minister of Happiness” from her fans as her poise and warmth are recognized by the media and players on the WTA tour.
In July 2023, after Jabeur beat Belarussian player Aryna Sabalenka, the second seed for Wimbledon, Sabelenka tweeted: “Big congrats to @onsjabeur on an incredible performance. I hate you now, but u know I love u anyway! good luck in the final, you got this.”
On a call with Jabeur during the 2020 Australian Open, Tunisian President Kais Saied gave her words of encouragement, expressing that her “racket was like a sword [she’d] win with.”
Jabeur’s Tunisian Pride
In all her accomplishments, Jabeur has never left her roots behind. When asked about her background, Jabeur asserted she is “100% Tunisian product” and plans to remain that way. She rejected offers of training in the US so that she could train in her home country. Jabeur also honors Tunisia’s culture by acknowledging its music and creating T-shirts with Arabic on them.
When Jabeur won the Berlin Open in 2022, she asked the DJ to play Tunisian rapper Balti. She also designed merchandise with the phrase “Yalla Habibi” meaning “Let’s go, darling” in Arabic.
Jabeur’s unwavering national pride gives Tunisians hope for their country and has spread awareness of Tunisian sports as it is often overlooked by concerns over the economy and the refugee crisis.
Toufik Marouni, a cafe owner in Tunisia expressed that it “is a very bad time in Tunisia. Ons Jabeur, she does what the politicians can’t. She gives people hope. She makes them happy.”
From Soccer to Tennis
Soccer by far was the most popular sport in Tunisia until Jabeur started making tennis history. However, to understand just how remarkable Jabeur’s efforts to introduce tennis to Tunisia, it is important to understand Tunisia’s history with soccer.
Until the end of World War I, only French and other European colonizers played soccer. However, Tunisians started playing football as it defied French colonization. Tunisians tried to form their own teams only to be stopped by colonial authorities, but in 1919 they licensed the first Tunisian football team called “Espérance Sportive de Tunis (Sporting Hope of Tunis).” Only the well-educated and elite played on the team which would later serve as an important organization to achieve national liberation from the French.
Soccer is deeply rooted in Tunisian culture and Jabeur herself accredits her success on grass courts to soccer: “I love grass. I have a love relationship with the grass. Everything started with football because I’m a huge [soccer] fan.”
Jabeur made tennis more than just a sport, but a way for Tunisians to find a positive focus during difficult times. She caught the attention of a country where football revolved around its culture through her accolades. Before, many Tunisians thought of tennis as restrained only for the elite. Now that they see Jabeur, a daughter of two middle-class parents, playing tennis and dominating the court, opinions of tennis have changed drastically. Sarra, a Tunisian law student said: “Even though I was not interested in tennis, I would cheer for her regardless of what she has achieved.”
The “Ons- Effect”
According to the Tunisian Tennis Federation, the number of tennis players in Tunisia tripled which can be attributed to Jabeur’s efforts. Parents are beginning to enroll their children in tennis and young players from junior leagues are naming her as their idols. Residents are demanding more available tennis courts since there are only a few tennis clubs—all are private initiatives.
Over the past five years, approximately 20 more tennis clubs have opened up. This breakthrough offers a bright future for those who want to follow in Jabeur’s footsteps and has raised awareness around the challenges of being an athlete from Tunisia.
A Look into the Future
Many discussions surrounding Jabeur’s journey have brought up conversations regarding sports and funding in Tunisia. Many young Tunisians would like to believe that Jabeur’s legacy will continue through generations but are doubtful as the lack of government funding and support in sports persists.
There are, however, various players from the Middle East on the rise. Mayar Sherif is the highest-ranked Egyptian player (ranked 31) and also competed in the 2023 US Open. In 2022, she surpassed Ismail El-Shafei, an Egyptian tennis legend who ranked number 34 in 1975 at his peak. Ons Jabeur and Mayar Sherif competing in Wimbledon 2023 was the first time in history that two Arab women were ranked in a Grand Slam. There are also various African tennis players in the junior league. Aya El Ouni, a Moroccan tennis player, played in the Australian Open in 20222, and before that played at the Billie Jean Cup in Nairobi where she played against another African rising player, Angella Okutoyi.
In the midst of excitement for American tennis due to the US Open, it is important to recognize the continued efforts and accomplishments players from the Middle East bring to this tournament. Jabeur is a catalyst for the start of tennis in the Middle East and is a role model to all those watching.