Thanks to Ons Jabeur, Arab and African Girls Don’t Have to Be “the First”

Jabeur made history last Sunday. Here’s what it means for the growth of the sport.

By: Alexandra Cadet

In a continent of over 1.4 billion people, only one person has a WTA 1000 title to their name. That person is Ons Jabeur, who became the first African to attain one last Saturday, thanks to her impressive performance at the Madrid Open. 

Jabeur holds the Madrid Open trophy. (Photo courtesy of Sky Sports)

This honor is only the latest in what’s become an impressive brag sheet for the Tunisian. Jabeur is the first Arab player to crack the top 10 in the WTA or ATP; she also became the highest-ranked Tunisian player in history, climbing to No. 7 in 2021. Not to mention, she was the first Arab player to progress past a quarterfinal in any WTA tournament four years ago at the Kremlin Cup. Nearly five decades after the Tour’s inception, tennis fans are just now seeing these glass ceilings get shattered. That’s absolutely mind-boggling.

But when analyzing the resources Jabeur had access to at the start of her career, the fact that she’s the first to do all of this begins to make more sense. When she was a child, tennis courts were so hard to come by in Tunisia that Jabeur’s club didn’t even have access to one; she had to practice at nearby hotels and have her mother drive her to tournaments across the country. This continued until her parents sent her to train in Tunis, then Europe. 

Jabeur didn’t just lack support in a material sense. Save for her family, her childhood goal to become a title-winning tennis player was largely met with derision from those in her hometown. It was only her and her family’s resilience in spite of the naysayers that propelled her career. “We don’t have that spirit in Tunisia, that you can be a champion,” she said to GQ Middle East. “I guess I was good, I wasn’t listening to anyone.”

While the compatriots who doubted her were undeniably tough to deal with, it’s hard to blame them for being cynical. The only Arab WTA player to break the top 100 in rankings before Jabeur was Selima Sfar, who peaked at No. 75. Moreover, the farthest an African woman had previously gone in a Grand Slam tournament was Amanda Coetzer’s three semi-final appearances. 

So Jabeur bore the pressures of being the first of her people to carve a path in tennis on top of the difficult job of making it to the WTA in the first place. Just like Jabeur in her youth, girls should be allowed to dream of bigger and better things––but sometimes, that dreaming can be easier when someone like them has done it before.

And now, Ons Jabeur has, well, done it before. She will be the person African girls dreaming of non-stop tennis and travel can look up to. She will be the woman described in Tunisian textbooks written about big stars who came from humble beginnings. She will be the player referenced by the next Arab tennis superstar as “a major inspiration.” And she will be the legend who helps trigger a wave of interest in the sport across the continent––no matter how long that wave takes to appear. 

“You’re gonna see a whole other generation of women from North Africa coming into tennis,” said legend Venus Williams when Jabeur broke onto the scene. “It’s going to be all owed to her.” That is where Jabeur’s victory will resonate for years to come: in the hearts and minds of all the girls who will no longer have to be “the first.” 

Ons Jabeur (TUN), ranked No. 7 in Singles by the WTA, is currently competing in the Italian Open. Learn how to watch here.

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