SOUSSE, Tunisia - One of the hallmarks of the WTA Tour in 2019 is its unequalled global reach and the rich diversity of its cast - and over three years as a Top 100 mainstay, Tunisia's Ons Jabeur has been a leading light on this front.
The 25-year-old, who was the 2011 Roland Garros girls' champion, has since established herself as both a trailblazer and a crowd-pleaser. Jabeur's emergence from a region with minimal female sporting history is remarkable enough: in 2017, she became the first Arab woman to reach the third round of a Grand Slam at Roland Garros, a feat she equalled at this year's US Open; last October, she became the first Tunisian WTA finalist in history when she came runner-up in Moscow to Daria Kasatkina; and the career-high ranking of World No.51 she hit this September is the highest ever achieved by an Arab player.
But Jabeur isn't just a geographic curiosity. Her dazzling array of what she terms her "crazy shots", and her palpable delight when she pulls them off, have made her one of the Tour's finest entertainers. Wickedly spun slices, flat forehand bullets struck from seemingly impossible positions, dropshots that come as naturally to her as breathing - all of this makes any Jabeur match worth catching, win or lose. And at her best, the Sousse native becomes a walking highlights reel - and a potential thorn in the side of the very best in the game. This year, that was evident in a spellbinding run to the Eastbourne semifinals, including a 6-3, 6-2 rout of hometown favorite Johanna Konta, as well as a brilliant performance at the US Open in stretching Karolina Pliskova all the way to three sets.
In November, Jabeur was honored at the Arab Women of the Year Awards for her sporting achievements, taking pride of place at the London ceremony alongside figures such as Jordanian journalist Rana Husseini and Kuwaiti activists Sheikha Al-Nafisi and Sundus Hussein - and, in an exclusive chat with wtatennis.com, reveals how this has inspired her to greater heights next year.
Alex Macpherson: How did it feel to be honored at the Arab Women of the Year Awards, and what was the experience like? Did you have a chance to speak to any of the other guests?
Ons Jabeur: I was selected the best woman in the sports field, and I was among a lot of amazing women in that ceremony - all Arabic and from different fields. It was a dinner gala, an elegant party, and it was amazing - some celebrities from the Arab world were there and I felt so honored. It's the first time I received something like this internationally. I spoke a little bit to [Lebanese presenter] Alice Abdel Aziz - she's really famous in the Arab world - and it was also very interesting to talk to Najat Vallaud-Belkacem, who used to be a French minister and who was honored for her achievements in global gender equality. And it was an escape for two or three days, so that was nice!
AM: How did you feel to be recognised after managing to build your tennis career in a country without a big tennis tradition?
OJ: I felt really proud - it was something I'd been waiting for a long time, ever since playing around when I was a kid to thinking whether I can inspire Arab women to believe that nothing is impossible. Something like this can inspire me to work harder and be better, especially since I'm becoming more known in the international world.
AM: What do you think was the key to your success coming out of Tunisia?
OJ: I grew up in a really good family - they allowed me to do anything I wanted, and my mom actually introduced me to tennis. I never felt I couldn't do it. They encouraged me and that's what made me the woman I am today - they gave me all the opportunity I wanted. Plus my country helped me a lot - honestly I couldn't have done it without my family or my country.
AM: So your message is as much to families as well as Arab girls themselves?
OJ: Yes. If families support the dreams of the girls, it will make their dreams come true much easier. My parents sacrificed a lot of things - my mom used to drive me everywhere around Tunisia to go play the tournaments, and she encouraged me to go to a special school to study. That was a big sacrifice to see her little girl going for a dream that, honestly, wasn't 100% guaranteed. She believed in me and gave me the confidence to be there. I support every girl who wants to be there one day. At any level, whether sports or any other field, it always starts with a dream.
AM: You're known as one of the most entertaining players on tour. What's your mindset behind the crazy shots you go for? How does it feel to be in one of those zones where everything you touch is a ridiculous winner?
OJ: I don't like routines, I like fun stuff. For me, entertaining the people also entertains me - plus it gives me the opportunity to be like an artist, you know? It's like drawing a picture, doing dropshots and slices. I like variety, to change the rhythm, and I like to be different. I like to do amazing shots and I like to do them from angles where it's hard to achieve on the court - for me to do these shots gives me the joy to be on the court. And when I'm enjoying the game, that's when I'm better.
AM: Does that just apply to tennis, or to other activities as well?
OJ: Well, I love football. I would have thought of being a professional football player if I wasn't a tennis player, but that would have been even tougher coming from Tunisia. When I play that, I try to do all sorts of tricks as well - but not as good as in tennis. But anything that involves a ball in a sport, I'm good at - if you give me a ball, I can do something with it!
AM: There's a flipside to that, of course - when you go for low-percentage shots and they start missing. How do you balance making the most of your natural skill and playing the kind of game that will bring wins more consistently?
OJ: First of all, to do these shots you need to take a lot of risks. They are not easy shots. In my game I have a lot of choice - it's not just one style, it's different styles. Sometimes you get confused, you don't know which shot you're going to do, so you end up missing the ball. The biggest challenge for me is to take the decision - I can hit the ball hard, I can slice, I can dropshot, I can volley, I have so many choices. That's a good thing, but sometimes a bad thing because you don't know what to choose.
AM: That must be a challenge for your coaches, as well. How have they helped you develop your game over the years?
OJ: I've been with Bertrand Perret since February 2018 - it's the longest time I've ever stayed with a coach, which is a good sign. I think he understands my game. He tries to improve my good shots, not change what I do. I've worked with a lot of coaches who tried to change my game, which is a very bad approach, especially with me. Bertrand encourages me to do dropshots and also corrects my dropshots, instead of other coaches who told me not to do dropshots at all - which was weird for me!
AM: You're not quite like anyone else on tour, but are there other players whose games inspire you?
OJ: We can see [Ashleigh] Barty at World No.1 - she likes to change things, to use slice. Kiki Mladenovic too, she's slicing and changing the rhythm a lot. [Monica] Niculescu, of course, she's an unbelievably tough player to play against. The last match we played was in Taipei in 2018 - three hours playing, and she ended up winning 4-6, 7-6(7), 6-4. When I played her, I understood why some players hate to play against me!
AM: What were your personal highlights from 2019, and how are you preparing for 2020 in this off-season?
OJ: I would say Eastbourne was really good - unfortunately it didn't finish good, but I'm happy with the tournament. Especially the crowd was really, really nice, it's special to find a crowd like this. Even when I played Konta and beat the hometown girl, they were very fair-play and supported me - I appreciated it a lot. I wish I could have done more better, but it is what it is with all the injuries I had. It's part of the game but I'm trying to accept them more and stop complaining about them. It doesn't help. We've been correcting a lot of things, working on some new angles which will help me improve my game and to be more fit and ready to play. We set up really amazing goals for next year. My off-season goals are to get stronger, more fit. We introduced some new techniques like yoga - which is nice, because it's training but you get time to relax and enjoy it as well.
AM: And off the court, were there any particularly good memories?
OJ: I'm an Eminem fan, and I went to see him in Dubai this year - that's something off my bucket list!