Before the fall of the Berlin Wall, dozens of Eastern European men players negotiated the obstacle course created by Communist regimes. More recently, a constellation of Serbian stars had to practice in an empty swimming pool as NATO bombs dropped. More recently, Li Na overcame arcane rules in communist China.
Now Ons Jabeur not only joins this illustrious roster of players who have coped with political and cultural challenges, she jumps to the head of the line. At a time when fear of Islamic terrorism and animosity toward North Africans pervades France, Jabeur, a 22-year-old from Tunisia, has emerged from the qualies at Roland Garros and advanced into the main draw as a lucky loser. With her shocking second-round upset of the feisty Slovakian, Dominika Cibulkova, she has reached the third round, becoming the first woman from an Arab country to get this far in Grand Slam history.
Tunisia, it must be said, is a most unlikely place to produce a world-class tennis player, and moreover a female competitor. Coming from a culture where many women remained veiled, Ons takes the court, pretty in her pink outfit and matching shoes. Although liberal compared to its neighbors, Algeria and Libya, Tunisia, it must be remembered, was where the Arab Spring started and quickly spread throughout the Arab world. Jabeur grew up and developed her game during a period of frightening turbulence and street violence. Al Qaeda in Islamic Magreb (AQIM) and ISIS continue to convulse her country. Just last summer dozens of foreign tourists were killed by terrorists at a popular beach resort in Tunis, and the situation there is still unstable.
Yet in 2011, precisely during the tumult of the Arab Spring, Ons Jabeur showed up at Roland Garros and won the Junior Girls Singles title. Rather than a smooth path to quick success, this early title led to more hurdles. Jabeur suffered injuries and understandably had troubles concentrating on tennis and covering her travel and coaching expenses. But then she received a $50,000 grant from the Grand Slam Development Fund. As Jabeur says, “Of course it changed everything. First, I don’t have to think about the money. I just have to focus on tennis.”
In 2017 she has enjoyed good results and won a title in Taiwan. While grateful for her good luck, she’s also the type to take full advantage of it. With a positive attitude and a self-deprecating sense of humor, she claims to feel no special pressure. “When I win, I represent the Arab world. When I lose, I try to be just Ons Jabeur.” But then barely drawing a deep breath, she adds, “For me, it is not only about Tunisia anymore, it’s all about the Arab country [and the] African continent.”