DOHA, Qatar - Ons Jabeur is used to being the only player flying the Tunisian flag at WTA tournaments.
Her country’s lone representative in the Top 900, Jabeur is the highest-ranked Arab woman by a mile, blazing a trail for Middle Eastern tennis that has taken years to bear fruit.
But on Wednesday night on a rocking Centre Court in Doha, the Tunisian flags were waving everywhere as Jabeur stunned former World No.1 Karolina Pliskova to reach the Qatar Total Open quarterfinals for the first time.
“lt's a crazy crowd, they think it's a football match, obviously! But I'm glad they were here to support me,” Jabeur laughed in her post-match press conference, adding, “I really apologize to Karolina for the misbehaving in between serves… hopefully the crowd will learn next time to really support during the point.
“And I'm really glad they came, happy to see all the Tunisian flags, it's an unbelievable feeling and hopefully I can see them tomorrow.”
Jabeur fever has been in full swing since the 25-year-old’s historic run in Melbourne, which saw her become the first Arab woman to reach the quarterfinals of a Grand Slam. Along the way, she knocked out No.12 seed Johanna Konta in the opening round, came back from a set down against Caroline Garcia, sent Caroline Wozniacki into retirement after a three-set thriller and took down US Open quarterfinalist Wang Qiang, the No.27 seed, before falling to eventual champion Sofia Kenin in the last eight.
The result sent Jabeur rocketing up the rankings to break the Top 50 for the first time - becoming the highest-ranked Arab woman in the history of tennis.
“I put in my mind that I want to be in Top 20 and I think I'm going in the right track,” Jabeur told press in Doha. “Most important thing is to improve my game. I see that I'm better with holding the stress or with managing some points, so I think I can really play better and maybe like really, really play and win a good tournament.”
After Australia, Jabeur went straight into the Middle East swing, a time of the year that has been a struggle in the past: in seven appearances, she had collected just two main draw wins in Dubai and none in Doha.
The red and white flags were out in full force as Jabeur battled past the always-dangerous Alison Riske to set up a blockbuster clash with eventual champion Simona Halep. She won the hearts of tennis fans in Dubai and beyond for her grit despite losing in a heartbreaking third-set tiebreak, 1-6, 6-2, 7-6(7) - but it only left her hungry for more.
“If it was last year, probably I would be happy because I made three sets against Simona Halep,” told press in Dubai. “Now I'm more angry because I didn't win the match. I know I could have. I know I had the level to.”
Dubai’s packed Centre Court atmosphere was electric that match, with Jabeur’s Tunisian supporters trying their best to drown out Halep’s vocal fans. The experience taught Jabeur a valuable lesson on how to tune out the noise and attention.
“I know it's amazing to see a match court like this with a lot of crowd screaming,” she reflected. “Definitely for concentration was not easy. [Halep] is obviously more used to this than me. It's a good first time to learn this for me.”
During her run in Melbourne, the president of Tunisia followed her results closely, and this week in Doha it’s no different: the Emir of Qatar, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani, was in attendance to witness Jabeur’s fight into the quarterfinals, as the Tunisian embassy sent a memo urging Tunisians in Qatar to go support their national hero.
“I mean it's a good pressure, I say, it's a good pressure to play good, especially if the President is interested in what you're doing and many other political people were out there following me,” Jabeur said. “I'm proud of what I'm doing, I hope I can inspire many people and I mean hopefully it could continue, because I think it's just the start of the season.”
Proudly referring to herself as ‘a 100% Tunisian product’, Jabeur hopes her recent success will continue to inspire Arab girls and women from the region to pursue the sport - in hopes that, in the future, they won’t have to go at it alone.
“I'm really glad that I'm setting the example here,” Jabeur said. “I'm just sending the message that nothing is impossible and they can achieve anything, either in sports or any other level.
“I'm glad that I'm doing this, I started from the bottom, like they say, and hopefully I'm looking forward to see many other women rising in tennis, I mean especially in Tunisia or in Arabic world and Africa.
“It would mean a lot to me and I'm happy to share my experience one day and then help this young generation.”
World No.44 Ons Jabeur takes on No.8 seed Petra Kvitova in the quarterfinals of the Qatar Total Open on Thursday.