Not many would understand it, but when an Arab athlete accomplishes something significant in sport, it is considered a source of pride for the entire Arab region.
It doesn’t matter if you’re from Tunisia or Egypt or Saudi Arabia or the UAE… The whole region is connected by more than just a language and when it comes to sport, the accomplishments at the elite level are not too frequent, especially in tennis, so when one Arab does something big, it could potentially impact more than 300 million Arabs.
Which is why Tunisian Ons Jabeur has been considered a hero in the Arab world ever since she won the Roland Garros junior title in 2011. She was 16 years old at the time and shot to fame across the region for her unprecedented success by an Arab female tennis player.
Being a role model or a national hero is an honour, but also sometimes a burden for many players, who feel added pressure because of the hopes of their nations that are pinned on their shoulders. Imagine being that figure for more than 20 countries, not just one.
It is a tough ask but one that Jabeur carries proudly. The 22-year-old on Wednesday became the first Arab woman to reach the third round of a Grand Slam in singles. She defeated the sixth-seeded Dominika Cibulkova 6-4, 6-3 to claim the first top-10 win of her career, and set up a third round with No30 seed Timea Bacsinszky.
After her victory, Jabeur draped the Tunisian flag around her shoulders and celebrated with the many Tunisians who were in the stands of Court Suzanne Lenglen.
Jabeur is the first Arab woman since Selima Sfar in 2008 to win a Grand Slam main draw match and she paid tribute to her predecessor during her on-court interview with Marion Bartoli.
Jabeur and Sfar, 39, are friends, and sometimes practice together when they are both in Doha, where Jabeur’s husband lives and where Sfar spends time working as a commentator for beIN Sports.
“I’ve known Selima for a long time, and actually from last year, we got really close,” Jabeur said after her win on Wednesday.
“We started to practice more and more together, and she always gives me a lot of advice. She’s a top player from before, so she can help me a lot. She knows a lot about tennis. She’s a very kind person, so she always gives me a lot of advice.
“Now to be here and represent like Tunisia and the Arab world just after her, it’s an honour. We were talking with her last time and she’s very happy I’m the player taking kind of this adventure now.
“I would like to give hope to all of these youngsters who’d like to turn pro, and more specifically the Tunisians who are dreaming of Roland Garros. It’s not impossible. Work hard, and then the results will come.”
Does the weight of being the sole Arab woman competing at this level in the sport ever get too much for Jabeur?
The humorous Tunisian said: “Well, when I win, I’m like ‘Yeah, I represent the Arab world’. When I lose, I try to be just Ons Jabeur,” she added with a laugh.
“No, we are small country. The Arab world is like when you do something good, you’re from Tunisia, and from Morocco, other Arab country, they get interested in you.
“For me, it’s not only about Tunisia anymore, and it’s all about the Arab country, African continent. It’s amazing, because I feel like my country is getting bigger and bigger.”
Jabeur is now on the brink of becoming the first Arab woman since Sfar in 2002, to crack the top 100 (her provisional ranking is now 101).
Her journey from being a success junior to now getting closer to the very best in her sport has been long, despite her young age, and tumultuous. But this season, Jabeur has consistently put some strong results together, reaching the last-16 at the WTA Premier event in Charleston, making the quarter-finals in Taipei and now featuring in the Roland Garros third round.
She credits her work with her new coach, Mislav Hizak, and the Empire Tennis Academy in Trnava, Slovakia, for her recent success. Jabeur spent her preseason training in Slovakia with the likes of Daria Kasatkina and Kateryna Kozlova, and put in a monster effort to get fitter and ready for 2017.
“I had a nice proposal, a good academy, a good coach. From that point onward, I was ready to give 100 per cent of myself. I didn’t have to wonder where to practice, when to practice,” she explains.
“So that means 50 per cent of my worries went away. I felt lighter, I started practicing better, playing better. If you feel good in your head, then your results improve.”
Against Cibulkova, she did not flinch. She hit 30 winners against just 17 unforced errors and only dropped two points on her first serve.
She toyed with the Slovakian star with her signature drop shots and the only time she lost serve – in the second set to go down 1-3 – she broke back immediately and never looked back.
“It’s an unbelievable feeling, especially when you dictate the game. I mean, I felt like today I was deciding what to do. If I wanted to get her in the net, I make the drop shot. And then I somehow even make a lob or win the point,” she said.
“And then the serve was really good today, and to win in two sets against top-10 player, it’s great to have more confidence and to continue in this way.”
Jabeur is renowned for her deft drop shots and they were heavily featured against Cibulkova. She says that sometimes she just can’t help it, and that the drop shot comes off her racquet without her even intending to do it.
Her unique style of play caught the eye of two-time Grand Slam champion Svetlana Kuznetsova, who said on Wednesday: “ I saw her play quite a bit, she plays a very different game, she mixes up the style, she feels the ball really well, she’s not a great mover and she hasn’t been doing so well but when she’s on it’s really tough. She plays a very interesting game, different than other girls.”
Cibulkova knew what to expect from Jabeur having watched videos of her on YouTube to prepare for the match, but the world No7 says she was unable to bring her best game on the day.
“Literally nothing worked for me today. It was a really bad performance from my side, I don’t know what happened today, because I felt really well before the tournament and also in the first round,” said Cibulkova.
“I was pretty soft and I let her play really aggressive and then when I wanted to do something I was doing so many errors, it was just nothing working, from the serve, return, and all my weapons were just not there today.”
Jabeur made it into the draw as a lucky loser and has been on a mission to make sure she capitalised on the opportunity (she also was a lucky loser in Charleston where she made the last-16).
“I did everything to continue my path. I played really good from the beginning of the year, and I don’t see why I should not continue doing my best. I have been working very hard, and it’s time to make the work on the court and prove that I can be one of the best,” says Jabeur.