Monday, October 11, 2021 - Ons Jabeur plays Danielle Collins on day 8 of the BNP Paribas Open at the Indian Wells Tennis Garden in Indian Wells, California. (Michael Cummo/BNP Paribas Open)
With a 7-5, 6-3 win over Estonian Anett Kontaveit on Thursday night at the BNP Paribas Open, Ons Jabeur not only booked a spot in her first WTA 1000 semifinal, she made tennis history. The 27-year-old is guaranteed to move into the Top 10 when the next rankings are published, the first Arab — man or woman — to do so. We sat down with Jabeur ahead of her final-four matchup with Spain’s Paula Badosa.
There have been a lot of firsts for you the last few years: First Arab woman to reach a Grand Slam quarterfinal; first Arab woman in the Top 50; first Arab to win a WTA title. Now you’re the first Arab in the Top 10 on either tour. Can you talk about that accomplishment and what it means to you?
It means a lot. I have a lot of emotions right now. I’m very happy that I got to reach the goal that I’ve been waiting for for a long time. I knew that I had the level, but sometimes it’s tough to get there. I didn’t understand what I needed to do exactly. Understanding my game more, my style more, got me into the Top 10. I’m very happy with the way I’m playing now. The experience that I’ve gained, especially this year with all the matches that I’ve played — I think I deserve to be in the Top 10. I’m looking forward to improving a lot of things in my game, because I want to be here, I want to be first in the world. I have a lot of other goals. I don’t want to stop here. I’m very happy to be giving a good example for Arab women or men around the world. If I can make it, you can make it also.
There was a moment there after you closed out the win against Kontaveit when you raised your arms to the sky. What was going through your head?
Relief. A lot of relief. It’s never easy to play Anett. She can come back any minute. It was very stressful at the end of the match. But I’m glad that I kept my cool. I’ve learned a lot with all the matches that I’ve played this year. I’m learning to handle the stress more. There’s a lot going on this week with the [Race to the WTA Finals], with the Top 10. I want to be a better player on the court. I want to learn. I’m not afraid to say that I was stressed. It’s part of the game. It’s something that I want to improve. Hopefully, I will get the results along the way.
Was there a turning point when you realized that you were playing for more than yourself, your family, for something even bigger?
Maybe after reaching the final in Moscow in 2018, when I got the support of many Tunisians. People waking up at 3 a.m., 4 a.m. to watch my matches – it means a lot. People in the cafes usually watch soccer. Now they’re watching me play tennis. They’re putting tennis as the second, maybe first sport in Tunisia at certain times. It’s a great responsibility. With great responsibilities come stress and hard work. I’ve been handling that so well. I’m very proud to represent Tunisia. Hopefully, I can inspire other generations behind me.
You mentioned the fan support. You could be in London or in the California desert, and Tunisians always turn out to support you with signs, with flags. Could you have imagined that kind of global appeal when you were a little girl picking up a racquet?
I always say, Tunisians are everywhere. Since I came from Montreal to Cincinnati to New York, Chicago and here, Tunisians flags were everywhere. The Tunsian fans are everywhere. I love that about them. There was some woman traveling to each city just to come see me. That’s unbelievable. I’ve never had that before. Having their support, and many other fans, means a lot to me.
Billie Jean King is another trailblazer in this sport, someone who has long knocked down doors. What was it like to meet her this week in Indian Wells and have someone of her stature recognize your accomplishments?
I’ve been looking forward to meet her for years. Finally, I got the chance. I was very lucky to speak to her. She gave me a lot of advice about my career. I’m very grateful for her because if it wasn’t for her, I wouldn’t be playing now. She’s such an inspiration. I want to do great for women. I want to also break barriers, do a lot of things.
You’re now leading the tour in match wins with 48. What does that say about what you and your team are doing as far as practice, preparation and fitness?
It’s big. I never imagined that I could lead the tour in wins. It shows that, physically, I’m much better. My tennis coach [Issam Jellali] is someone that I respect so much. We kind of started from the bottom together. We are now in the Top 10. They doubted us a lot as a team, but we stayed together. We kept communicating a lot. It’s never easy coming from my country. We have to change this mentality that you need to have a coach with a lot of experience. The most important thing is that the coach understands the player. From there, you can do amazing things. That’s what we did with my team. It’s a dream team I have. I hope we continue working hard. Now we are even more motivated to go even to the Top 5. Why not No. 1 in the world?
You’ve talked about lacking self-belief early on in your career. When did that all change for you?
I think sometimes the circumstances, the people you meet, they make you doubt yourself. Maybe that’s a lack of experience. Listening to people who don’t mean much to you. As a player, I was fragile. But I still had the belief inside me, even at a very low percentage at certain times. But having a great team behind my, my tennis coach, my fitness coach, my mental coach, were always pushing me more to believe in myself. That helped me a lot to be the player I am now. I still have a lot of work to do, a lot of belief to put in myself. I think I’m getting there. I may be slow, but I’m getting there.
There’s such variety, such unpredictability in your game. I wondered if that carries over to your personality away from the court.
It does. I hate routines. I hate doing the same thing. Doing the slices, the dropshots, sometimes going to the net, I think reflects my personality, the way I am outside the court. I love mixing it up. I love putting on a show for people who come to watch. This is when I play good. I always say, if I’m having pleasure on the court, that’s when I play my best tennis.