Tennis star Ons Jabeur gives sport in Arab and African countries a boost

DUBAI: Just hours before Tunisian tennis superstar Ons Jabeur starts her 2022 Wimbledon tournament against Swedish Mirjam Bjorklund, she is ranked number two in the world, the highest ranking in her career.
It was also the highest ranking ever for African or Arab tennis players, male or female.
For the Emirati, tennis specialist Khalid al-Ali, Jabeur and other players from North Africa are helping to raise the image and popularity of tennis like never before.
“You can divide the Arab world in half, knowing that the Maghreb countries, such as Tunisia, Morocco and Algeria, in addition to Egypt, are at an advanced stage in tennis,” he said. “Besides Us there is the Egyptian player Mayar Sherif, who was in the ranking in the 1960s. It is also proof that nowadays women’s tennis is more developed than men’s tennis, where no one has reached these levels.
As a tennis enthusiast, especially at this time of year, Al-Ali appreciates the well-established traditions held dear to Wimbledon, and the intense rivalry on the pitch for the men’s and women’s titles, which seems to be tinged with a potential political change this year. .
“The Wimbledon tournament, which started in 1877, has an extremely rich heritage,” he said. Traditions such as white clothing and the lack of billboards around the courts have so far been maintained. This year, however, there will be changes. In the past, players would enter the field from the side, but this year there is a new tradition and they will enter the field from the center of the field.
“In addition, this is the first time that Center Court at Wimbledon will be open for training before the start of the tournament. Traditionally, no one was allowed to enter the midfield before the first official game. So these are two novelties.”
But the biggest change this year is at the player level.
“For the first time in twenty-four years, Roger Federer will not participate in the tournament,” said Al-Ali. That makes the difference in this edition, just like the ban on participation by Russian players. For this reason, the ATP withdrew all points that would have been awarded as politics interferes with the sport.
In the absence of Federer, eyes will inevitably once again be on defending champions Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal, now third and fourth in the world.
“Djokovic has won the last three tournaments and, logically, on grass he is in the lead,” said Al-Ali. “After that, as always, even if we don’t consider him the favourite, Nadal wins in a tournament like we saw at Roland Garros. Before Roland Garros he had lost in Rome to the Canadian Denis Shapovalov.
“There were doubts that this would be his last tournament, because his body can no longer withstand injuries. But he won, and now he’s very confident, hoping to deliver a feat Novak almost did but couldn’t. It is the Golden Grand Slam, winning all four major tournaments in the same year. He has already won in Australia and at Roland Garros. He enters Wimbledon, inhabited by his dream.
“Last year Djokovic won the Australian Open, then Roland Garros and Wimbledon, and entered the US Open hoping to deliver a feat that only Rod Laver, the Australian player, had achieved. He did it twice, once before he was a professional player, which didn’t get him into the record books, but he came back to complete this feat after World War II.
Djokovic lost the US Open final in straight sets to Daniil Medvedev. This setback and the unpleasant episode of the Australian Open – when he was detained for not being vaccinated against Covid-19 – dealt a serious blow to his morale.
“However, he has a good chance of counterattacking at Wimbledon,” said Al-Ali. Favorites also include Stefanos Tsitsipas, Matteo Berrettini, who has won two grass court tournaments this year and was the losing runner-up at Wimbledon against Djokovic last year. You can limit the winning quad to these players.
“Andy Murray is back with a wild card because his ranking is not high enough,” Al-Ali said. Physically, he may not be ready yet, but when he plays in front of his home crowd, he can outdo himself.
Among the women, Wimbledon once again welcomes the great Serena Williams who, with 23 Grand Slam titles, still hopes to match Margaret Court’s women’s record of 24 titles.
“Serena Williams also returns with a wild card after a long absence,” said Al-Ali. She played doubles with Ons Jabeur at Eastbourne, where they reached the semi-finals, but Ons had to withdraw due to injury. It was a minor injury, but she didn’t want to make it worse for Wimbledon.”
“Williams looked slower and wasn’t the Serena we’re used to. But she still has shots that are suitable for grass and could eventually become a favorite.
“Of course the number one in the world, Iga Swiatek, is one of the favourites, as is the Swiss player Belinda Bencic. And then there’s the return of Petra Kvitova who won in Eastbourne and became a Wimbledon champion twice.
“In women’s tennis there are always surprises,” said Al-Ali.
Jabeur, although the current number two in the world, is in third place at Wimbledon. The Emirati commentator has high hopes for her, despite the high expectations.
“She reached the quarter-finals last year, which was her best performance at a Grand Slam,” said Al-Ali. “She’s under a lot of pressure, but she’s playing fantastic and her style suits the grass. We could see her in the final.”
Her qualification for the draw matches and her large fan base in the Arab world – not to mention her hero status – will continue to drive her forward. Al-Ali hopes that his achievements, and those of other African Arab players, will one day extend to the rest of the Middle East.
“Geographical location always plays a role, whether it’s in sports or any other field,” he said. “Proximity, cost, mentality, the core of this sport. It is a sport that started in France and was later organized by the English. There is a certain way of life and there are many sacrifices for the players, especially the female players. However, Moroccans, Algerians, Tunisians and Egyptians excel at this sport. And of course the size of the population is an important factor. They had access to this sport earlier than in this region.”
In the UAE and the Gulf Cooperation Council, the popularity of tennis is constantly increasing, thanks to the growing number of events taking place there, he said.
“Fortunately, things are getting better here. All the best players in the world come to Dubai, so the popularity of this sport has increased,” said Al-Ali. “What Us is doing is similar to what happened in China. China is a large and important country, but tennis only became popular after Li Na won two Grand Slam tournaments, Roland Garros and the Australian Open. Then the country started to take an interest in it.”
“We therefore hope that with Ons Jabeur, and after the progress of the three Moroccans Karim Alami, Hicham Arazi and Younes el-Aynaoui, there will be others,” he added. “There is Jordan Abdullah Shelbayh who plays at Wimbledon junior and won the tournament in doubles there. He trains at Rafael Nadal’s academy and I have a lot of hope for him.”
With the right support and funding, Al-Ali is confident that more Arab tennis players will follow in Jabeur’s footsteps in the future.
“We are still optimistic,” he said. “We have a nice academy in Fujairah, founded by Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al-Maktoum, where I sit on the board. When Ons Jabeur was junior she played in a tournament there after joining the ITF, and Alexander Zverev also won in Fujairah.”
“It is not strange for us to organize the best tournaments in this region. We now have to introduce development programs, but we don’t have clear programs yet. There is also a lack of equity in funding between sports. We need to make sure that individual sports like tennis are supported, just like football.”
This text is the translation of an article published on Arabnews.com