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Tunisian Tennis Player Ons Jabeur: “It’s Important That Arabs Show Each Other That We Can Make It”

Ons Jabeur catapulted into the tennis spotlight last year when she became the first Arab to reach the final of a Grand Slam tournament. Now the No. 2 player in the world, she stands on the brink of making history again in 2023

Top, pants, earrings, necklace, Prada. Photo: Sam Rawadi. Vogue Arabia, January 2023

Driving through the streets of Tunis, it is impossible to avoid Ons Jabeur. Her face stares down at commuters from giant billboards, proudly proclaiming that she was “Made in Tunisia.” That pride runs deep. The tennis star has become a national treasure, a symbol of sporting success not just for the North African nation, but the whole Arab world. And after a momentous season in which she became the first Arab to reach a Grand Slam singles final, she has set her sights even higher in 2023.

Jabeur creates tennis history, becoming the first Arab player to win a WTA 1000 title in the Madrid Open final

It is early December and Jabeur is in training. The tennis off-season is short and in her brief break she has managed to have some time for relaxation, including watching Tunisia play at the World Cup in Qatar. But now fitness work has begun in earnest and next week she will play at the Mubadala World Tennis Championship in Abu Dhabi, an exhibition tournament that offers precious match time ahead of the new season. A few weeks later, once again all eyes will be on Jabeur on January 16, when the Australian Open, the year’s curtain-raising Grand Slam takes place in Melbourne. One of four elite tennis “majors,” these are the events at which careers are made and broken.

Coat, Elie Saab; earrings, Boucheron. Photo: Sam Rawadi. Vogue Arabia, January 2023

Jabeur will be among the favorites after enjoying the best year of her career. In a history-making 2022, she won her first WTA 1000 series tournament at the Madrid Open, before coming heartbreakingly close to achieving her childhood dream of winning Wimbledon. Two months later, she reached the US Open final, losing to World No. 1 Iga Swiatek in New York. “The Wimbledon final was the worst of the two because it is a tournament that I love so much,” Jabeur tells Vogue Arabia. “I was really heartbroken afterwards, but I knew that I did everything in my power to win this final. I don’t keep things inside. I cried a little bit and that helped to get the emotions out. It didn’t happen but you just have to move on. I always try to be a positive person. It just wasn’t meant to be that day, or at the US Open, but I feel like my time will come very soon. I am still extremely proud and grateful that I had this season.”

At the Wimbledon final

Born in Monastir, Jabeur was just three years old when her mother gave her a racket and ball. It was the beginning of a special relationship with the sport that has lasted 25 years. “My mom loved tennis and because I was the youngest, she took me with her to the Tennis Club,” Jabeur recalls. “I just had so much energy and the club was the perfect place for me to be. Tennis is my world; the tennis court is a place where I feel free. It’s just something that I’m very blessed to have in my life; it’s great to do what you love, and I truly love tennis.”

Jabeur’s journey to the top of her sport has not been straightforward. While some players explode onto the scene before seeing their star fade, the 28-year-old’s career has had a steadily upward trajectory. “Every person has a different path, and every person takes their own time,” Jabeur says. “They might go in super-fast and win something huge, but I have taken my time to understand the tour. Definitely, things have happened slowly with me but then 2022 was the best year of my life.”

Suit, top, Stella McCartney; shoes, Christian Dior. Photo: Sam Rawadi. Vogue Arabia, January 2023

Jabeur’s annus mirabilis will feature in a new Netflix show Break Point, a fly-on-the-wall documentary that debuts this month. From the team behind F1: Drive To Survive, the program will chronicle the ups and downs of the 2022 tennis season across the men’s and women’s tours. “We have never had this before, cameras following us everywhere, and I definitely feel like everyone will see tennis players from a different angle, especially as they were with us in the locker rooms preparing before matches,” Jabeur says. “You will see all the struggles, and what the players go through.” The cameras followed Jabeur to Tunisia after the Wimbledon final and witnessed her receive a hero’s welcome first-hand. She is hopeful that viewers will see a new side to tennis players, whose on and off-court personas can often be wildly different. “On the court I feel like there are these demons inside and they come out with all the anger, all the emotion. I think it will be interesting for people to discover the personalities of different players – myself included. I really cannot wait to share this because honestly I’m not good enough with Instagram and all the social media, so this is a great opportunity for people to see who I am.”

Jabeur at her brother’s wedding with her husband Karim Kamoun, a former professional fencer who is now her fitness trainer

Part of that behind-the-scenes view will likely involve Jabeur’s relationship with her husband Karim Kamoun, a former professional fencer who is now her fitness trainer. It is an arrangement that Jabeur admits took a little time to settle into. “When we started working together it was funny because he would tell me to go run and I’d be like ‘don’t tell me what to do.’ We were arguing a lot but once we began to understand each other; it got much better and I can see that I’ve improved a lot physically. The tennis star emphasizes the importance of separating professional and personal life. “On the court I see him as my trainer and outside the court he is my husband. We still have to make sure we have moments together as a couple.”

Coat, Hermès; pants, Roksanda; shoes, Giuseppe Zanotti; earrings, Boucheron. Photo: Sam Rawadi. Vogue Arabia, January 2023

Another storyline certain to be covered by Netflix will be the twin retirements of tennis royalty Serena Williams and Roger Federer, who both called time on their careers in 2022. Jabeur feels tennis will be poorer without the pair, who are two of the game’s greatest ever players. “It’s just a huge loss for our sport and I hope they don’t disappear from the tennis world entirely,” Jabeur says. “Roger is really amazing, such a humble guy, and Serena is Serena. She did so much for our sport. She changed a lot about women’s tennis and women’s sports in general. She gave us the opportunity to have more and to be more equal to men. Without her we wouldn’t have had that push and it would definitely have taken us longer.”

Tunisian President Kais Saied presents the player with the Order of Merit

Since 2007, the men’s and women’s Grand Slams have offered equal prize money after Wimbledon became the final tournament to make the change. It was fitting that Williams, a long-time advocate of equal pay for women in sport, was the first female Wimbledon champion to receive the same winnings as her male counterpart. “Serena has inspired me to be a better player, to believe more in myself, and to achieve great things. She’s not just a successful tennis player but a successful businesswoman and that is really important for tennis players to see – that we are not just athletes but can have other interests.”

Suit, shirt, Valentino; earrings, Boucheron. Photo: Sam Rawadi. Vogue Arabia, January 2023

Jabeur had the opportunity to share a court with Williams last July in a tournament ahead of Wimbledon after the American handpicked her to be her doubles partner. “It was crazy at the beginning. I was super stressed but then she made me feel very comfortable,” Jabeur laughs. “Obviously she was the leader, but she made me feel like my role was important on the court and she was taking my advice too. I think that gave me a lot of confidence, that she asked for my opinion. She’s really a great leader.”

With Williams gone, there is a void that needs to be filled by players like Jabeur. The Tunisian recognizes she is in a privileged position, a role model who can influence people. She has already been immortalized on a postage stamp in her homeland and was recently named Peace Champion of the Year, an award previously won by – among others – football superstar Lionel Messi. “I feel like it’s a great responsibility. It pushes me to do better and inspire more women from my country. It’s important to send that positive message, especially when your country is going through tough times. It is very important to help people through what you do, especially to use your platform to inspire more people and fight for causes that you believe in. It’s a new thing for me but I’m loving it. From the beginning I always have wanted to just share great energy. I always try to spread a message of positive thoughts and just hope this can help others.”

Playing doubles with Serena Williams at Eastbourne

Jabeur, along with Morocco’s recent men’s Fifa World Cup semifinalists, exemplifies an emerging theme of pan-Arab sporting pride. Her support doesn’t only come from Tunisia, but from across the Arab world. “We should stick together,” Jabeur smiles. “I think it’s very important that Arabs show each other that we can make it. I love that Morocco made history – I feel pride, not rivalry.” Jabeur is making aspiring Arab tennis players believe that a career in the sport might be possible and she is optimistic that there will be few barriers for players now aiming to turn professional. One of the key issues she has faced is with sponsorship and she remains convinced that brands rejected her because of her background. “It’s been very difficult. Sponsors don’t want to take a chance on you because you are from North Africa. I don’t know about marketing, but I can tell we’re not in favor and honestly, it’s a shame; you should sponsor players for the game, not for the face or where they come from. I feel like if I had a different nationality, probably I would have had more sponsors. I hope this will change. Now I speak to companies and somehow, they are interested because I’m more successful. But I know my values and my principles; I believe that if you stick with me when I’m down then you should always be in my team.”

Jabeur after the Madrid Open final

That team is set for a potentially blockbuster year in 2023 and anticipation is already building across the region that Jabeur could become tennis’s first Arab Grand Slam champion. Until then, she still has plenty to celebrate. “I know that more kids in Tunisia now believe they could have a professional tennis career. Before, there wasn’t a clear picture of what that looks like,” she reflects. “Now there is hope in the young generation. Even just seeing that more people in Tunisia now play tennis for fun – these are great victories.”

Originally published in the January 2023 issue of Vogue Arabia

Fashion director: Amine Jreissati
Hair: Denny Clements
Makeup: Ivanna Bou Salameh
Producer: Sam Allison
Video: George Tsikos
Fashion assistant: Kate Dixon
Studio equipment: Lighthouse Studio

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