INDIAN WELLS, Calif. -- When Maria Sakkari played in the Middle East last month, she was pleasantly surprised by the tennis intelligence quotient of the people she interacted with.
Sakkari attributes that -- rightly -- to the unlikely rise of Tunisia’s Ons Jabeur. Attending the recent World Cup in Qatar, Jabeur noticed it, too.
“I was there to watch the Tunisia match, and it was crazy how happy people were to see me,” Jabeur said at the BNP Paribas Open. “I can also hear the numbers of how many people are playing tennis in Tunisia -- it’s going up and up.
“It’s really an inspiration for me, motivation to do better.”
Jabeur reached the finals at last year’s Wimbledon and US Open and earned a career-high No.2 ranking -- the first African and Arab woman to do any of those things. The Tunisian Tennis Federation reports that its participants have more than tripled since Jabeur stepped onto the world stage, and last fall in Monastir she was instrumental in the staging of Tunisia’s first WTA event.
And while Jabeur is unquestionably a trailblazer, origin stories like hers are emerging more often.
In the WTA Tour’s inaugural season of 1973, power was concentrated -- almost cartoonishly -- at the top. The 65 singles titles were all collected by players from a total of only five nations. Australia and the United States, led respectively by Margaret Court and Billie Jean King, won 50 between them.
Fast forward to 2022 and the elite tennis map of the world looks completely different. Last year’s 55 events featured 35 different champions -- from 21 different countries. Poland’s Iga Swiatek, with eight titles, was the best player, but she was joined by an international cadre of winners, including: Romania’s Simona Halep, Mayar Sherif from Egypt, Kazakhstan’s Elena Rybakina, Petra Martic of Croatia and China’s Zhang Shuai.
International Women's Day: A look back at memorable moments of the WTA
Wednesday was International Women’s Day, and Indian Wells is doing its part to properly observe it. The women’s 96-player draw here is a veritable United Nations of competitors. No fewer than 31 nations are represented -- including Montenegro (Danka Kovinic), the Slovak Republic (Anna Karolina Schmiedlova) and Hungary (Anna Bondar).
Sakkari, who has created a stirring string of firsts for the country of Greece, is a shining part of that global movement.
“That’s the key word,” she said, “because tennis has become a global sport. All these different people, from different countries, different cultures just winning tournaments, advertising tennis around the world.
“Before Stefanos [Tsitsipas] and myself, tennis was not big in Greece and now it’s the third-biggest sport. It’s very tough for people to find an empty tennis court or a spot in a tennis school or academy. When Novak [Djokovic] said, ‘Tennis is probably the fourth most popular sport in the world,’ it makes you realize how all these different players from all these different cultures have really helped in that.”
The actual numbers are difficult to track, but there is a general consensus that soccer (an estimated 3.5 billion fans), cricket (2.5 billion) and field hockey (2 billion) are the world’s most popular sports in terms of television viewership. Depending on the data you use, tennis or ice hockey (1 billion) is next.
Tennis, whose origins can be traced to the 8th century, moved into Europe when the Moorish Empire extended into Southern France. It went on to become popular in Great Britain and eventually the game flourished in the United States and Australia. In the 1960s, Australian men won 32 of the 40 major singles titles -- but none since 2002, when Lleyton Hewitt was the Wimbledon champion.
Technology has increasingly shrunk the world -- and made it easier for people from non-traditional countries to follow the game. And, ultimately, to participate in it. The Internet and the growth of social media brings the personalities up close and personal, which creates another layer of fandom. Today it’s possible to stream most ATP and WTA matches, and in some cases, WTA 125s, ATP Challengers and a number of ITF events.
It’s not surprising, then, that a young Swiatek growing up in Poland could be exposed to world-class tennis -- following the example of countrywoman Agnieszka Radwanska -- and put in the hard work required to get there. Swiatek’s rise has created a new level of engagement in the Polish population; it was not a coincidence that the WTA Poland Open re-appeared in 2021, the year after Swiatek broke through by winning the title at Roland Garros.
“Honestly, in sport the beautiful thing is it doesn’t matter where we’re starting from,” Swiatek, the defending champion here, said Wednesday. “If you have talent and you’re going to work hard, for sure you’ll succeed. But for sure, in Poland we can have better infrastructure overall to teach kids how to do sports in a good way. But also have more courts overall and the ability to play. So we can still change that and I think we’re going to get more players.
“I think I’ve been through more stuff than some of the players who had a more serious [national] system and had help. But on the other hand, that’s what makes it more special for me. I didn’t use much help and I know it was all on my dad’s shoulders a little bit, but it’s a thing that I’m proud of.”
Sania Mirza brought tennis into the mainstream in cricket-crazy India. She grew up in the 1980s and 90s in the southern city of Hyderabad, when tennis was still defined as a sport for the wealthy. Playing on courts made of cow dung, she climbed quickly through the junior ranks.
After two decades as a professional, she retired last month in Dubai. Mirza won a total of 43 doubles titles -- six of them (including mixed) at the Grand Slams -- and was the No.1 doubles player for a total of 91 weeks.
“I’m very sad that I was not at the Dubai Open to see her play for the last time,” said Jabeur, who was injured. “She’s really amazing. I feel like we shared a similar path together -- to change things in India, same thing for me in Tunisia, to be the first women to do so.”
While financial resources can certainly make the path to the top easier, any player with enough talent and ambition and luck can reach the elite level. That’s what American Jessica Pegula -- ranked No. 3 among Hologic WTA Tour players -- likes about the sport.
“Obviously, some countries have more money, more players, the fact that’s possible is really cool,” she said. “I don’t think you can get that in other sports. And I think now globally it’s grown and you see more people playing the sport -- and that’s why you see more successful countries. And maybe that’s why more countries put more money into the sport.”
Among many things, Jabeur’s success has made her a role model, a very serious influencer. She particularly treasures her interactions with children.
“Sometimes they ask about their forehand or their backhand,” she said. “It’s so sweet, you know, ‘What should I do?’ and the fact that they ask is really amazing. Sometimes I don’t know what to answer.”
The answer, as Swiatek knows, is to keep playing well and, as Sakkari put it, advertising the game of tennis.
“I think there is a big hype that I am trying to use to make things more popular and more available,” Swiatek said of Poland. “For sure, it’s going to be my goal in the future. Right now, it’s kind of a goal on the side because I’m more focused on my career and what I want to do on the court.
“And I know that with success and good matches that’s going to come.”