Tunisian Ons Jabeur has started the new season with new coach, Diego Veronelli, in her corner and her husband, Karim Kamoun, serving as her fitness trainer, as she looks to back up her breakthrough 2017 with more success over the next 12 months.
Jabeur, who became the first Arab woman to reach the third round of a Grand Slam in singles at last year’s Roland Garros, is ranked 95 in the world and will be playing just her second major as a direct entrant this fortnight in Melbourne.
The 23-year-old starts her Australian Open campaign against 16th-seeded Elena Vesnina on Tuesday, looking for her first match win of the 2018 season.
Jabeur spent the first part of her preparations for 2018 at Empire Tennis Academy in Trnava, Slovakia alongside other WTA players like Daria Kasatkina and Kateryna Kozlova, before travelling to Dubai, where she met up with her new coach Veronelli, who previously coached Heather Watson.
“It’s going pretty good, I like the practice with him. It’s a new challenge, new experience for me so I’m looking forward to our first tournament and see how it goes,” Jabeur told Sport360 in Dubai last month.
Veronelli, an Argentinean former player, and Jabeur hit it off from the start, and they finish their practices by competing against each other in various challenges — it was a serving contest the day I attended her practice.
“We always compete, not only on the serve. It’s kind of funny because I told him from day one, ‘I love challenges, so if you make me do a challenge, even if I’m 100 per cent tired, I’m going to be on fire,” explained Jabeur.
“So that’s what we’ve been doing since day one. This morning we were doing a lot things today, he lost so he had to do some burpees, but then I lost so I had to do also, but it’s fun, I like it that way.”
Jabeur started travelling with her husband Kamoun as her fitness trainer in the second half of last season. Kamoun, a Tunisian-Russian, who is a former fencer, can be seen on the sidelines during her practices, taking notes and writing up training programmes for his wife.
“He’s kind of torturing me on the court and then after I just want to punch him so I don’t know how it’s going to be,” Jabeur says laughing.
“No but we try to be professional on the court and forget a little bit that he’s my husband. For now it’s going good but we’ll see after a few months.”
Jabeur is a crafty young player with high tennis IQ. She won Roland Garros junior champion and made her top-100 debut last year.
“I’ve noticed she has a lot of potential. Of course a lot of things to improve, and those things don’t come day to night, it takes some time, but there’s hope and I like that in a player,” says Veronelli.
Jabeur will be competing in her second Australian Open main draw (lost in 2015 first round) but faces a tricky task against the 19th-ranked Vesnina.
The 28-year-old Slovakian broke through during an era when teenagers making waves on the tennis circuit was the norm, rather than an anomaly. But that hasn’t been the trend recently, with both the men’s and women’s tours witnessing lots of dominance from players in, or near, their 30s.
Last season though, a 20-year-old Jelena Ostapenko stormed to the French Open title, and with Serena Williams absent, the No. 1 spot switched hands multiple times throughout the year implying the winds of change were finally catching up with the WTA.
A 17-year-old Marketa Vondrousova won a title in Biel. A 19-year-old Daria Kasatkina claimed the Premier title in Charleston. A 22-year-old Elina Svitolina picked up two Premier 5 trophies and cracked the top-five. There were quite a few signs that the younger generation was ready to rise.
Cibulkova doesn’t feel 2017 was as transitional as people are making it out to be though.
“I don’t know. I didn’t really feel that way because I think the times when the girls, when I was 16, 17, I was already on the tour and now you don’t see so many players like this,” Cibulkova told Sport360 during her preseason training block in Dubai last month.
“So I would say it’s still more about the older and experienced players, and there are some – one or two, like CiCi Bellis, she’s 17, and she’s I don’t know her exact ranking, but she’s playing really good now and I’m sure she’s top-50, she’s one of a kind.
“I think right now it’s still about the old and experienced players that they still have their time.”
She added: “I was one of the last players who started to play pro in WTA tournaments at a really young age. And I think it became more difficult for these young players.”
The likes of Serena and Venus Williams have destroyed any preexisting notion that tennis players in their mid-30s typically bow out of the sport.
At 35, a pregnant Serena defeated a 36-year-old Venus in the Australian Open final 12 months ago.
Venus is now 37 and is ranked in the world’s top-five.
Does Cibulkova see herself playing at that age?
“No I don’t think so. I don’t see myself playing after I become a mum,” said Cibulkova, who got married to long-time partner Michal Navara in 2016.
“So let’s see how long still I’ll be able to motivate myself and do all this hard work and sacrifice kind of your whole life, so we’ll see. But I’m really looking forward to 2018.”
Motivation was something Cibulkova admittedly struggled with last year. She had a huge 2016, which she ended by winning the biggest title of her career at the WTA Finals in Singapore and cracking the top-five in the world rankings.
The Bratislava-native won four titles from seven finals reached that year. When it was time to start preparing for 2017, she was out of gas and demotivated. She dropped outside the top-20 as a result and is now ranked 26.
“It was another experience for me. I know I’m getting older and everything is more about experience. You need to take a break and you really need to be ready for next season. 2016 was a lot of everything on the court, off the court and in 2017, even when I started to practice during my preseason I felt really tired,” confessed Cibulkova.
“I didn’t feel like ‘okay, let’s do this’, I was really tired, it was really hard for me to go even to leave for the tournaments and to practice. These kind of things can really affect you.
“But it’s a good experience for me and I know if I’m 100 per cent mentally and physically I can do big things so hopefully 2018 is going to be a good one.”
To recapture her spark, Cibulkova did things differently at the end of 2017. She took two full months off then decided to prepare for the new season in Dubai instead of her usual routine of flying to Boca Raton and training at the Chris Evert academy.
For nearly two weeks in December, Cibulkova was sweating it out on the courts of Jumeirah Beach Hotel, immediately following up 90-minute sessions of some serious hitting, with intense circuit training in the gym.
“It’s been great. I’m feeling full of energy and I’m really motivated for 2018. We switched location after I don’t know maybe 10 or more years. In the beginning I was afraid but it’s a little bit easier for us because it’s just a five-hour flight and almost no time difference so it’s great to be here in Dubai,” she said.
Is there anything she particularly dreads when it comes to her preseason training?
“Hard really tough practices on the court are really, really tough, with my coach, like today you saw, it was not easy, but this is something that’s really hard,” she says.
“But when you really focus on something that you want to improve then the time goes so fast. Even if it’s really tiring then you just realise ‘okay, we’re going to play one and a half hour drills’. So when you have this mindset, even the really hard things can go easier.”
Cibulkova is aware that she is now 28 and has been a professional player since 2004. She will be playing fewer tournaments in 2018 to preserve her body, and opted to skip Brisbane last week and instead started her new season this week in Sydney, where she won her first two rounds against Anastasija Sevastova and Elena Vesnina. She takes on ex-world No. 1 Angelique Kerber in the quarter-finals on Thursday.
There are a host of star players who are atypically ranked outside the top-20 at the moment, like Kerber, Petra Kvitova, Agnieszka Radwanska and Cibulkova. They’ve all dropped in the rankings for different reasons and will no doubt cause mayhem in the Australian Open draw, which will be revealed on Thursday.
Does her lower-than-usual ranking mean she’s approaching the season differently?
“For me it’s completely different this time. Last time I didn’t want to be there in the preseason. I just didn’t feel motivated enough to go there again and play and work. So right now I feel completely different. I feel like I had my break. I took a longer break. I didn’t do anything for two months and it just really helped me and this is something I needed and I feel 100 per cent motivated again,” says an upbeat Cibulkova.
Serena Williams “absolutely” intends to surpass Margaret Court’s record of 24 Grand Slam titles and believes being a new mother can help her achieve that goal.
The 36-year-old, who gave birth to her first daughter Alexis Olympia in September, decided to pull out of the Australian Open following concerns over her ability to make an impact in Melbourne.
Williams won the last of her 23 Grand Slams Down Under in 2017, defeating her sister Venus in the final when, it would later emerge, she was in the early stages of her pregnancy.
The American former world number one had returned to the court on December 30 at the Mubadala World tennis Championship in Abu Dhabi, where she lost an exhibition match against Jelena Ostapenko, the 2017 French Open champion.
Despite admitting she was “not where I personally want to be” in announcing her withdrawal from the Australian Open, which starts on January 15, Williams told Vogue she was determined to return to a competitive level sooner rather than later.
“Maybe this goes without saying, but it needs to be said in a powerful way: I absolutely want more Grand Slams. I’m well aware of the record books, unfortunately. It’s not a secret that I have my sights on 25, and actually, I think having a baby might help,” Williams told the February edition of the magazine.
“When I’m too anxious I lose matches, and I feel like a lot of that anxiety disappeared when Olympia was born.
“Knowing I’ve got this beautiful baby to go home to makes me feel like I don’t have to play another match. I don’t need the money or the titles or the prestige. I want them, but I don’t need them. That’s a different feeling for me.”
Williams feels her life off the court with all the challenges of a new mother will only bring a positive influence to her game.
“Sometimes I get really down and feel like, ‘Man, I can’t do this’, it is that same negative attitude I have on the court sometimes,” the American added.
“I guess that’s just who I am. No one talks about the low moments — the pressure you feel, the incredible letdown every time you hear the baby cry.
“I’ve broken down I don’t know how many times, or I’ll get angry about the crying, then sad about being angry, and then guilty, like, ‘Why do I feel so sad when I have a beautiful baby?’. The emotions are insane.”