It is dark and rainy at the dead of night but here comes Ons Jabeur, beaming across my screen and bringing the sunshine, just before 2am. She is early for our Zoom interview because Jabeur is different to most sports personalities who are locked inside bubbles of fame where punctuality does not seem to matter much. Jabeur, preparing for the Australian Open in Melbourne, lives in the real world and so humility comes naturally.
Yet she is about to enter another dimension where she will be tested in a new way. Jabeur enjoyed a breakout 2022 – becoming the first African and Arab woman to win a WTA 1000 event while making further history as she reached the final at Wimbledon and the US Open. She has risen to world No 2 and this year started with her pictured on the cover of Vogue Arabiajoining Naomi Osaka’s new agency and, with Novak Djokovic, leading the first executive committee of the Professional Tennis Players Association as it tries to reshape the sport.
Jabeur is also one of the stars, alongside Nick Kyrgios, in the Netflix series break point. Going behind the scenes on tour might do for tennis what the same production company did in galvanizing the popularity of Formula One. So how will a woman as grounded as Jabeur cope with her burgeoning celebrity? “It’s not easy,” she says with a smile. “There’s something about it you just have to get used to, but maybe it’s a bit more difficult for me because I am friendly. I can hardly say no to anyone.”
Jabeur laughs before becoming more thoughtful. “I don’t like being arrogant. If I go to someone famous and I want to take a picture or have a chat then I hope that person will reply to me. I want to be the same and open to people. Let’s see after Netflix how it goes. But, so far, who am I kidding? If anyone comes to tell me how amazing I am, I’ll take that every day.”
During her long struggle to break into the top 100, Jabeur walked a lonely path. The 28-year-old Tunisian faced many obstacles and so she is serious in representing African and Arab women, who still suffer the worst prejudice. Even after she became the first Arab woman to reach a grand slam quarter-final at the 2020 Australian Open, Jabeur endured discrimination. It is only recently, having turned pro in 2012, that sponsors have become interested in her.
“I struggled financially,” she concedes, “but maybe it’s a good thing. It gave me strength to work harder. I’m very glad that I’m starting something and hopefully this will inspire other women in my region.”
As a young girl Jabeur spoke confidently of her belief that she would become a grand slam champion, despite a limited tennis infrastructure in Tunisia, and she won the French Juniors in 2011. But that victory heaped so much expectation on her that the transition to the per circuit did not go well. “It weighs a lot on you. I was touring the world and I hated it for a long time. It was very difficult. I would be lying if I told you I never stopped believing [she would make it]. I had moments of weakness because I’m just human.”
She played under many coaches and trained in Slovakia, but it seemed to Jabeur that neither she nor her culture were understood. It was only when she switched to an all-Tunisian team, including her coach Issam Jellali and husband Karim Kamoun, who looks after her fitness, that Jabeur settled. “At the end of 2019 I spoke to my team, and said: ‘I’m sick of losing in the first round. I know I can be top 10.”
Jabeur pinpoints the 2020 Australian Open as a turning point. She beat Johanna Konta, Caroline Garcia, Caroline Wozniacki and Wang Qiang – all of them ranked above her – and lost in the quarter-finals to Sofia Kenin who went on to win the tournament. Jabeur had finally reached the top 50. Covid slowed her progress but then, last year, she reached two successive grand slam finals.
“I learned a lot and both Wimbledon and the US Open were tough losses for me. But it always takes me time. I won my first WTA tournament after losing a few finals. Maybe it will be the same for a grand slam. I want to maintain a great level so I can maybe dominate the WTA tour.”
Jabeur and Iga Swiatekthe world No 1 who beat her in the US Open final, are at the forefront of women’s tennis as the sport evolves. “I think the change happened on the woman’s side a long time already, and the men’s side is coming for sure. The example of the Williams sisters and Roger [Federer]Djokovic and [Rafa] Nadal is unbelievable. Now Iga is setting the example and Ash Barty did it too. If she continued playing she would have won 20 grand slams. But I like this new WTA. It’s so competitive you don’t know who is going to win and, honestly, maybe that’s better. Sometimes it’s boring to have the same final all the time.”
But Swiatek remains the woman to beat? “For sure, but other players are very tough and this year is going to be very interesting. aryna [Sabalenka] is doing great, and so is [Caroline] Garcia and [Jessica] Pegula. We have a really tough group right now.”
Jabeur will be under increased pressure as lower-ranked players raise their game against her. “Everybody wants to beat a top-five player, so they’re playing looser against me,” she concedes. “They have nothing to lose. I’ve been in that situation and it’s more fun. But it’s another challenge for me to maintain a certain stature and it’s not just ego.”
Jabeur holds a higher “mission” – to inspire women from her background and to elevate the women’s game. While they enjoy parity in terms of prize money at the grand slams, some tournaments offer 25% of the winnings at comparable men’s events. She believes the discrepancy is fueled by ignorance. “It’s crazy because some people are like: ‘I don’t need to watch women’s tennis. It’s boring.’ But how would you know? Honestly, women make a lot more sacrifices than men. Unfortunately, if I want to have a baby tomorrow I cannot as I am on tour. This is a huge sacrifice for women.”
She and her husband have discussed when they might start a family but, as Jabeur says, “everything is going great on court. It’s a good and bad thing but we’re being patient and we are very confident [becoming parents] will happen one day.”
Jabeur is also open about the challenges female players face when affected by their period. “You feel it at Wimbledon specifically because you’re playing in all whites,” Jabeur says. “That doesn’t help. They now allow you to wear black [underwear] but if you do that then everybody would know. Some women get more pain, even in their back, and I cannot tell you how many times I played with the first day of my period and how I was suffering and crying of pain. I have lost matches because of it.”
Her desire to humanize the sport will be seen in the Netflix series. “I’ve seen the fourth episode when I appear and it was really great. I like to show people who I am and I’m not afraid of showing my emotions. It’s part of who I am and the most important thing is that it will show people how tennis players are really living.”
Osaka has suffered with mental health issues but this week, after withdrawing from the Australian Open, she announced the happy news of her pregnancy. Jabeur jokes that she is not sure whether she should call Osaka “boss” now she has joined Evolve, the agency that the Japanese player started last year. She and Kyrgios are the two high-profile signings and Jabeur says: “Maybe I have a similar profile with Naomi. She is from Japan. I’m on the Arabic side and represent the Middle East and Africa. I want to create bigger things because it’s not just about having more sponsors but to also help players from my region reach where I am today.”
In a recent tribute to Jabeur, Osaka wrote: “My immediate thought while interacting with her was: ‘Wow, she’s the nicest person I’ve ever met.’ I was extremely shy so all I could ever do was mumble a few words, but she always came up to me, cracked jokes and made me feel more comfortable.”
“I understand the struggle Naomi has had,” Jabeur says. “I’m not sure how she manages. But I always try to tell other players: ‘if you need help I’m here.’ Some players find it strange. Why is she doing that? But it comes from a pure heart. It’s just a tennis tournament; it’s not life-threatening.
“Off the court you don’t need to be tough. You just need to be kind and smiling because you should enjoy it as much as you can. On court I’m completely different. I’m going to fight until the end of the match to win but when I shake your hand it’s over and we move on to something else. I completely understand why other players choose not to be that way but my personality means I like to smile and laugh with everyone.”
Jabeur grins one last time when I say that her nickname in Tunisia, as the Minister of Happiness, seems apt. “I take it. I love it, actually, because it reflects my character. I just want to bring happiness to people.”