‘We called her Roger Federer’: How Ons Jabeur made her mark in Tunisia

‘We called her Roger Federer’: How Ons Jabeur made her mark in Tunisia

‘We called her Roger Federer’: How Ons Jabeur made her mark in Tunisia

Tunisian tennis coach Nabil Mlika, who trained a young Ons Jabeur for 10 years, teaches a student at the Hammam Sousse tennis club in the Mediterranean port city of Sousse on May 13, 2022. (Photo by BECHIR TAIEB / AFP)

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Ons Jabeur of Tunisia was the first Arab or African woman to win a top-flight tennis title fifteen years ago, and her adolescent sparring partner could see she was destined for fame, even though he fractured his arm in the process.

Omar Laabidi recalls being beaten regularly by a 12-year-old Jabeur, who this month won the Madrid Open at the age of 27 for the first WTA 1000 title of her career.

“We used to call her Roger Federer,” he said.

Laabidi was speaking at the tennis club in Hammam Sousse, the North African country’s beachfront hamlet where it all began.

“One time during a training match she hit a drop shot that I tried so hard to return that I broke my arm,” he said.

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Jabeur, who aspires to win his first Grand Slam championship at the French Open, which begins on Sunday in Paris, began practicing on hotel courts.

However, she quickly became a member of the Hammam Sousse Club, which now boasts a large painting of its most famous graduate.

Nabil Mlika began training a brilliant girl “eager to stand out” among both female and male contemporaries there.

Mlika, who spent ten years training a young Jabeur, admitted that she was on the verge of retiring from the sport.

“She had great ball control, to the point where other coaches tried to attract her to handball,” said the 55-year-old.

“Ons thought seriously about switching sport — but decided to stick to tennis.”

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She has since risen to sixth place in the world Women’s Tennis Association women’s singles rankings, being the first Arab woman to do so.

In mid-May, she also reached the final of the Italian Open, which was won by world number one Iga Swiatek.

Jabeur, dubbed “the Minister for Happiness” by many Tunisians, was one of four siblings born in the southern seaside town of Ksar Hellal.

At the age of 12, she traveled to Tunis, Tunisia’s capital, to train at a prestigious state-sponsored sports club.

“She hates playing at one pace. She’s always trying to create a spectacle by switching up the game with shots that surprise her opponents, especially with drop shots,” said Mlika.

“She’s really the queen of the drop shot.”

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‘A spark of enthusiasm’

Jabeur made her international debut in 2011, when she won the French Open girls’ singles finals at the age of 16.

Around the same time as the adolescent Jabeur, Laabidi traveled to Tunis and enrolled in the same academy, where they started duelling.

“She was always fun and quickly got to know strangers,” he said.

“But she was always provocative and competitively debating on all subjects.”

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Despite her burgeoning celebrity, those who knew her as a teenager believe she hasn’t changed much.

“She still runs around gathering up all the balls during training, which she’s been doing since she started playing,” said Mlika.

Unsurprisingly, as her celebrity has grown since 2018, membership at her home club has grown from 320 to over 700 students.

Jabeur is “an example of hope, one we’re always offering to our children,” according to Yousra Koubaa, the mother of eight-year-old pupil Yasmine.

Mlika claims that he still uses images of a young Jabeur to motivate his students.

“She was a spark of enthusiasm, always moving and wanting to show that she was the best,” he said.

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“She always put me in a difficult position because I had to balance between taking the training up a level, or waiting for her peers to catch up with her level and her pace.”

 

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