DUBAI, UAE - Tunisia's Ons Jabeur is ready to build on her career-best season in 2018 and blaze a trail for Arab tennis as she does it. After jokingly referring to herself as "the Naomi Osaka of Africa", the affable 24-year-old said she takes her responsibility to the region very seriously.
"It's inspiring to see how players can inspire a country or a continent," Jabeur told reporters after defeating Donna Vekic in the first round of the Dubai Duty Free Tennis Championships.
"When I see someone shy, I don't leave them alone, that's me," Jabeur said with a laugh, recalling her time with Osaka at the 2015 WTA Rising Stars Invitational, where the two bonded. "Even now, I'm still joking with her, with her fitness coach. I'm wrestling with him because he's like this, Do you see these muscles?
"She's very nice, family also very nice. I wish they could win more Grand Slam. Leave some for me, but hopefully I can be there one time."
"For me, I'm really happy to represent Tunisia. I'm trying to give my best, to behave good on the court, to try to give a good example for the young generation who want to achieve what I'm doing right now.
"I'm trying to send a message that it's not impossible. You have to work hard. Why not? I want to see a lot of players from Tunisia to be here one day. It's one of my dreams."
A talented tennis prodigy with natural shot-making instincts, at 16-years-old she became the first Arab woman to win a junior Slam title, achieving the feat at the 2011 French Open, where she beat Monica Puig in the final. Her climb in the pro ranks has been slow, but steady. Two years ago she became the first Arab woman to advance to the third round of a Slam at 2017 Roland Garros, making her Top 100 debut soon afterwards.
"Probably the huge problem for me was that I was so talented with these dropshots, this hand," Jabeur said. "Everyone was telling me that. I had to really forget a little bit about that and work harder. Not work harder like crazy because this thing doesn't work with me. I need to work hard in the fun way. I had to find the solution, challenges.
"I actually practiced with a lot with Selima Sfar. She always tried to trick me to hit the ball more. This thing got me to move more, to improve more my game.
"I'm happy with this team that I have. They push me to do more than I can do. My limits, okay, I admit that I'm lazy sometimes. I need to have someone push me. But they need to do it the right way. Now they're doing it really good."
Working with coach Bertrand Perret and her husband Karim Kamoun as her fitness coach, 2018 proved far more fruitful for Jabeur. With her dazzling shot-making, Jabeur made her first WTA final at the Kremlin Cup, narrowly losing out to Daria Kasatkina in three sets. She comes into Dubai with a career-high ranking of No.56, having become the highest-ranked Arab woman in tennis history, overtaking Selina Sfar's previous mark of No.75 in 2001.
Jabeur said the most difficult aspect of making it on the pro tour has been the limited guidance she's able to soak in. Sfar was the first and only woman to ever be ranked in the Top 100 before her.
"For me as a player, I find it more tough to [find] someone who was in the top hundred or top two hundred, so they can give me advice. I had to go to the tournaments, discover on my own. I had to have my own experience.
"Okay, facilities are very important. But [you need] to find someone who can guide you to the top level, because it's really tough to be here. I think it's the most important thing.
"That's why I want to share my experience. I want to give this to the kids who don't have to go through what I went through, so I can save them some time or I can share my experience. It's going to be really helpful. Either in Tunisia or Africa, I'm really happy to do it.
"I hope after my career I can help this young generation. Now I'm trying to do a little bit. I'm 24, but when we played Fed Cup in Luxembourg, it was fun. There were two girls younger than me. I felt like a leader there, and I loved it. It was nice to give advice to these young girls.
"If anyone is watching now, I'm really open to give any advice they want."
"I saw there are a lot of motivated parents, but they don't have anything, like, clear. I can understand that they were afraid for their kids. We know that education is very important. I support education.
"At a certain level, you cannot [do] both at the same time. You have to choose. I had to do that. My mom was afraid to let me go, to do my own thing. But she understood that I wanted to do that, it was up to me.
"Parents, they can be tough on their kids sometimes, especially when they talk outside the practice, during the competition. I saw a lot of that.
"Recently we did something for the parents in one of the clubs in Tunisia. I went with my coach. We talked to them. They were really happy that I shared my experience. We're trying to tell the parents that you have to go a little bit easy on them."
Investment, formal programs, facilities, and opportunities are all necessary requirements to build tennis in the region, but Jabeur emphasized the need for ambition.
"You can give everything to the players, but they do nothing about it," Jabeur explained. "For me, you have to have a good program for them, but the most important thing is that the players, they want to be champions. That's the most important thing.
"I hope in the Arab world they can see it that way. They can see it's not about the money, not about the facilities, but you can just believe in yourself.
"I had a dream when I was younger. I'm still trying to achieve it. It all started like this. So for me, this very important thing."
Jabeur plays defending champion Elina Svitolina in the second round on Tuesday.