Selima Sfar: Pride and joy of the Arab tennis world

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She was the first and continues to be the only Arab woman to have broken into the WTA top-100.

Selima Sfar’s rise to the top was ground-breaking, not just for Tunisia but for the entire region and the 36-year-old is hoping to continue creating a tennis legacy post-retirement.

Sport360° sat down with Sfar at the Habtoor Grand in Dubai to know what it would take to have another female Arab champion.

How’s life been for you since you retired?

I started working with Al Jazeera at the end of my career. I decided at some point to have some stability and go away from the competition. I don’t think I was a born competitor. I know I made it for 16 years on tour, but the competition side is not natural for me.

Al Jazeera is great for me because I get to use my experience in tennis, I’m talking about something I know, I’m learning a new job, I’m giving something also to the people, to the Arab world, to Arab women. I’m also transferring my passion to people in general.

But again, for me it’s important to show Arab women that another Arab female player is on TV talking about sports. I want to keep going in that direction.

How did you get into tennis and eventually become the first and only Arab woman to get into the top-100?

I stayed in Tunisia until I was 13. I went to France to big tournaments, Les Petits As (a premier junior tournament for players aged 12-14 ) and I did some really good results.

So they asked me to go to the French federation, but for this I had to change my passport. I didn’t want to be French, I wanted to stay Tunisian. I was clear, even at that age, with my goals. So I went to another practice camp in Biarritz with Nathalie Tauziat. I left my family and country at 13.

Were your parents supportive?

I was lucky because I had a family who didn’t hesitate to let me pursue my passion. You know, for an Arab woman at 13 to leave the family to play tennis… no one had done it before from this region. I had no example to follow as an Arab woman. So I was very lucky that my family believed in me.

After that it was very difficult in a personal way. I was crying a lot, feeling lonely, missing my family, readapting… I was practising all the time, improving and playing tournaments, that’s what kept me going.

Do you remember a point that validated what you were doing and made you believe you’re on the right track?

The first tournament I won. I wasn’t 16 yet. It was in Tunisia, in Carthage. It was my club, my town, in front of my home crowd. It was the first ITF $10k in Tunisia and the final was on Women’s Day. So it was so symbolic.

And when I saw the reaction of the crowd, it was on TV, the whole country was behind me. When I saw that reaction I was like ‘I think maybe I have something good here’, and it gave me motivation to continue.

What was your proudest achievement throughout your career?

It was the first time I made it into the top-100. Because getting into the top-100 is one thing, but I stayed there or around there for about eight years. Also, participating in Grand Slams was a lot of pride for me. I took part in 37 Slams.

So every time you see a Tunisian flag there, you can talk about the Arab world, Arab women… it means a lot to me. And of course my best result which came in Dubai. Reaching the quarter-finals, having match points against Nathalie Tauziat to go to the semis against Martina Hingis was a very good result. Also making the quarter-finals in doubles at Wimbledon was great.

What do you attribute your success to?

I ask myself many times ‘why me?’ I was able to be the first one to make it and I hope that there will be many after me. And first of all, the passion for the game. Also I was lucky with my family, that they had enough money to let me do it and pay for my expenses.

Because sometimes you have really big talents but they can’t do it because of the finances. Also, I learnt to be disciplined very early. I’m a maniac when it comes to discipline and organisation and I think that’s very important in tennis.

And maybe the education and the fact that you don’t let go, you should never let go and just give your best every day. I believe if I had stayed in Tunisia it would not have been the same.

What needs to be done to create female tennis champions from the region?

It’s the whole culture here. It’s improving a lot day by day. It takes time, but if everybody does these kind of events (free clinic with Fabrice Santoro in Dubai), this kind of push, talks about this, encouraging others…

And first of all, the passion for the game. Also I was lucky with my family, that they had enough money to let me do it and pay for my expenses. Because sometimes you have really big talents but they can’t do it because of the finances.

Also, I learnt to be disciplined very early. I’m a maniac when it comes to discipline and organisation and I think that’s very important in tennis.

And maybe the education and the fact that you don’t let go, you should never let go and just give your best every day. I believe if I had stayed in Tunisia it would not have been the same. 

Today the most difficult thing is to make a girl or a young lady believe that they can make of tennis or sport, their job. It’s not part of our culture.

What about sponsorship in this part of the world?

I really do believe that the federations must play a very important role in helping kids who have potential and talent, who don’t have enough money to make it. They need to have a team to scout for players, you need to see the background and the family and if they need something.

Also, the federation must have the budget and sponsors to help them. You need to bring in good coaches and train them. That way it costs less money than travelling abroad. For me, it starts from the federations.

What about hosting events? For example, in Egypt a businessman created a full calendar of $10k events all year round…

This sounds great. The more tournaments in the Arab world the better, but maybe it’s a little bit extreme to do it this way. Maybe this guy can allocate this money differently between tournaments and maybe provide really good coaches for kids and help the 10 best kids in the country.

Do you ever see coaching in your future?

This year in Miami with the WTA I got my certificate of Pro Coach, which is the highest certificate you can get as a coach. So I have it in my pocket. If one day I feel like the opportunity is good and the team around is ready, then why not?

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