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Ons Jabeur: ‘I chose to inspire people. I chose to be the person that I am’

Last October, Ons Jabeur became the first Arab player, man or woman, to be ranked in the world’s top 10. It was an important, proud moment for the 27-year-old from Tunisia, who has been setting firsts ever since she joined the WTA Tour.

The first Arab woman to reach a grand slam quarter-final, at the Australian Open in 2020 and last year she became the first Arab woman to reach the last eight at Wimbledon. This year, she has won two more titles, including in Madrid, where she became the first Arab or African woman to win a WTA 1000 event.

Next week, she will begin her Wimbledon campaign as the new world No 2 – providing she can shake off a knee problem that led her to withdraw from Eastbourne. Carrying the hopes of a nation on her shoulders, and blazing a trail for Arab and African players, has been something she has lived with throughout her career but it’s only recently she has come to embrace it, rather than let it be a burden.

“I see myself like I’m on a mission,” Jabeur told The Guardian in an interview from Berlin, where last weekend she won her second title of the year. “I tell myself I chose to do this. Let’s say, I chose to inspire people. I chose to be the person that I am. I want to share my experience one day and really get more and more generations here.

“So I don’t see it as a burden, I see it as a great pleasure and great responsibility. It’s part of the job, it’s part of why I am playing today. And I do believe in sharing. Sharing could help me, help me as a player and help the other generations.”

A junior grand slam champion at Roland Garros in 2011, it took Jabeur until 2016 to break into the world’s top 100 and she made the top 50 in early 2020. Of late she has taken off, hitting the top 10 last October and now the top two for the first time, just a couple of months before her 28th birthday. It has taken time but for Jabeur, it’s been a natural progression.

“I honestly don’t think that something changed this year,” she says. “But the evolution that I’m getting from year to year, the experience that I’m getting, the matches that I’ve been winning are getting me more and more experience. That’s helped me to be the player that I am today.

“I feel like I needed to go through a lot of steps to achieve them and be the player I am today because I cannot just jump from step one to step 10. I’m the kind of player that takes my time, learning about myself, learning about some other things.

“I’m glad that at the beginning of the season I set my goals high, and said that I want to hold titles, win a grand slam and be top five. There is one more to achieve and hopefully I will achieve it.”

Ons Jabeur and Serena Williams on court at Eastbourne
Ons Jabeur and Serena Williams played doubles at Eastbourne before the Tunisian pulled out with injury. Photograph: Gareth Fuller/PA

Jabeur is a one-off. In her junior days, she was called “Roger Federer” for her shot-making ability and especially her slice. “I’m a long way from that,” she says, before laughing when recalling last year’s Wimbledon. Having made the quarter-finals for the first time, she was congratulated by Federer. As her team asked for a photo with the 20-time grand slam champion, Jabeur was dumbstruck. “I couldn’t say anything.”

At 5ft 6in, Jabeur’s game is not about pure power. Instead, she plays with finesse and joy, her drop shot one of the most recognisable strokes in the game. It is an integral part of her game, not just for its immediate effect but in the doubt it puts in the mind of her opponent.

“I am a huge fan of the drop shot,” she says. “The drop shot can always work because the other player is not really sure what to expect, a flat ball or drop shot. It can really surprise the other player, wrong-foot them. And also, when you do a drop shot, they don’t know what to expect [in future]. They know you can do it. They know they have to run. And some people, they’re not really happy with running forward all the time.”

At the French Open in late May, she was tipped for the title after her Madrid success, only to fall in the first round, the pressure seemingly too much. Winning in Berlin settled her down again. Her game and her mind, it seems, are there, testament to the hard work she has done on the court and off it, something she credits to her sports psychologist, who has helped her learn to handle the stress of big moments.

She can still lose her temper on court but now she’s better at shaking it off quickly. “It’s not easy to switch off during points but I think you get used to it,” she says. “I feel like I am more and more aware of myself, of my body, of my mental [side]. And that helps me kind of know myself in some kind of [difficult] situations.”

And so to Wimbledon, where she will try to go beyond the last eight of a slam for the first time. Providing the knee injury she cited in pulling out of Eastbourne on Thursday is just a precaution, her game is there.

Having spent this week partnering Serena Williams in doubles on the American’s return after a year out through injury, Jabeur is becoming used to rubbing shoulders with greatness. And unlike most players, who often want to talk only about doing their best, she is not afraid to consider what it would be like to win Wimbledon.

“It would mean a lot. I am manifesting a lot on that this year. It’s just such a great tournament. I remember the crowd last year was amazing. It’s a surface that I can play really well on and I can enjoy myself. And that’s why I would love to get the Wimbledon trophy. Hopefully I will be ready. My eyes are on Wimbledon.”

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