Ons Jabeur would love to become the ‘Naomi Osaka of Africa’ as the Tunisian hopes to inspire a young generation of Arab and African players to follow in her footsteps, the same way the Japanese world No. 1 is making waves for Asian tennis.
Jabeur, who upset world No. 25 Donna Vekic 6-4, 7-6(9) on Monday to set up a Dubai second round against No. 6 seed Elina Svitolina on Tuesday, is the highest ranked Arab woman in history, currently standing at 56 in the world.
She became the first Arab female to win a junior Grand Slam title when she lifted the girls’ singles trophy at Roland Garros in 2011, and later became the first Arab woman to reach the third round of a major, thanks to her exploits at the French Open in 2017.
Last October in Moscow, the 24-year-old from Sousse made history for the region once again, when she became the first Arab woman to feature in a final of a WTA tournament.
Jabeur is the only Arab woman ranked in the top-400, and is just the second to ever crack the top-100, after her compatriot Selima Sfar, who peaked at No. 75 in the world back in 2001.
With 21-year-old Naomi Osaka currently blazing a trail as Asia’s first-ever world No. 1, Jabeur was asked if she hopes to serve as a beacon for Africa in a similar manner.
“I’m now the Naomi Osaka of Africa?” asked Jabeur with a laugh, following her first round success over Vekic.
“Yeah, it’s inspiring to see how players can inspire a country or a continent. For me, I’m really happy to represent Tunisia. I’m trying to give my best, to behave good on the court, to try to give good example for the young generation who want to achieve what I’m doing right now.
“I’m trying to send a message that it’s not impossible. You have to work hard. Why not? I want to see a lot of players from Tunisia to be here one day. It’s one of my dreams.”
Jabeur and Osaka both played the WTA Rising Stars event in Singapore in 2015. While they are both known for their sense of humour, Jabeur is far more outgoing than the typically shy Osaka, who had told reporters in Beijing last October that she was grateful for Jabeur’s funny interactions with her back then, especially considering how introverted she was.
“For me, the Singapore is Ons,” Osaka said with a laugh, reflecting on that 2015 event.
Jabeur said of Osaka: “I joke with everyone. She was so shy. She still is. She respects me. I love that about any player. When I see someone shy, I don’t leave them alone, that’s me.
“Even now, I’m still joking with her, with her fitness coach. I’m arm-wrestling with him because he’s like this, ‘Do you see these muscles?’
“She’s very nice, family also very nice. I wish they could win more Grand Slams. Leave some for me, but hopefully I can be there one time.”
Despite her match being scheduled at 11:00am on a Monday in Dubai, there was a loud group of Tunisian supporters in the stands cheering on Jabeur.
“I always say Tunisians are everywhere. In Japan one time, I won there, there were some Tunisians,” she said with a chuckle.
Jabeur’s journey to where she is right now, on the brink of the top-50, has been an arduous one, mainly due to the fact that she barely had any role models from the region to guide her. She hopes to become that person for others in the Arab world, to aid them in finding the right path to success on the professional tennis tour.
“To find someone who can guide you to the top level – because it’s really tough to be here – I think it’s the most important thing,” she explained.
“That’s why I want to share my experience. I want to, like, give this to the kids who don’t have to go through what I went through, so I can save them some time or I can share my experience. It’s going to be really helpful.
“Either in Tunisia or Africa, I’m really happy to do it. I hope after my career I can help this young generation. Now I’m trying to do a little bit. I’m 24, but when we played Fed Cup in Luxembourg, it was fun. There were two girls younger than me. I felt like a leader there, and I loved it. It was nice to give advice to these young girls.
“If anyone is watching now, I’m really open to give any advice they want.”
Following her press conference on Monday, Jabeur returned to the court and won her doubles match alongside American Alison Riske against Andreja Klepac and Zheng Saisai.
Jabeur and Riske reached the doubles semi-finals in Doha last week and the North African believes playing more doubles will greatly benefit her singles game.
She is scheduled to face two-time defending champion Svitolina on centre court on Tuesday (second from an 11:00am start), in a rematch of their 2010 French Open junior final. Their most recent meeting came in Taipei two years ago, where Svitolina saved four match points before advancing to the semis at the expense of Jabeur.
All top eight seeds are in action on Tuesday, with Osaka facing Frenchwoman Kristina Mladenovic at 19:00 local time. It will be the Japanese’s first appearance as world No. 1 and first since her surprise split with her coach Sascha Bajin.
Third-seeded Simona Halep, the 2015 champion takes on Canadian Eugenie Bouchard while second-seeded Petra Kvitova, who won the title here in 2013, squares off against her fellow Czech Katerina Siniakova.
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