Workshop topics

Saudi football delegation attends Qatar World Cup workshop

HAMMAM SOUSSE, Tunisia: Ons Jabeur will make history on Thursday when she steps onto center court at Wimbledon as the first Arab woman to appear in a Grand Slam semi-final.

Fifteen years ago, Ons Jabeur’s young tennis partner could see the Tunisian was destined for glory – even though he broke his arm in the process.

Omar Laabidi remembers being beaten several times by a 12-year-old Jabeur.

“We used to call him ‘Roger Federer’,” Laabidi said.

He was speaking at the tennis club where it all started, in the coastal town of the North African country of Hammam Sousse.

“Once in a practice game she hit a bunt that I tried so hard to return I broke my arm,” he said.

Jabeur had started out playing on courts belonging to local hotels but she soon joined the Tennis Club Hammam Sousse, which now bears a huge portrait of its most famous graduate.

Coach Nabil Mlika recalls training a talented girl “determined to stand out” against her female and male peers.

It is a determination that has brought her to second place in the world, one place behind Poland’s Iga Swiatek.

But Mlika, who trained a young Jabeur for 10 years, said there was a time when she almost gave up on the sport.

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

“We seriously thought about changing sports, but decided to stick with tennis.”

The combativeness of the 27-year-old Tunisian has been evident throughout her career.

Despite her failure in the first round of Roland Garros in May, she came back to win the WTA singles title from Berlin a few weeks later.

Her Wimbledon semi-final appearance – against close friend and ‘BBQ buddy’ Tatjana Maria – comes just two weeks after she was forced to withdraw from the Eastbourne tournament, where she partnered Serena Williams in doubles, with a knee injury.

Jabeur, known to many Tunisians as “the Minister of Happiness”, was born in the southern coastal town of Ksar Hellal, one of four siblings.

She moved to the capital, Tunis, when she was 12 to train at a popular state-supported sports club.

She has been married to her physical trainer and former fencer, Karim Kamoun, since 2015.

The right-hander is known for her stamina and the variety of her game.

“She hates playing at a beat,” Mlika said. “She always tries to create a spectacle by changing the game with shots that surprise her opponents, especially with drop shots.

“She really is the queen of cushioning.”

Jabeur caused a stir on the world stage in 2011, winning the women’s singles at the French Open aged 16.

Laabidi also moved to Tunis around the same time as the teenage Jabeur and joined the same academy, where they continued to train.

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

“But she was always defiant and debated competitively on all topics.”

Those who knew her as a teenager say she has changed little despite her growing notoriety.

“She always runs to collect all the balls during practice, which she has been doing since she started playing,” Mlika said.

Unsurprisingly, as his fame skyrocketed, membership numbers skyrocketed at his home club, from 320 in 2018 to over 700 today.

For Yousra Koubaa, the mother of Yasmine, an eight-year-old student, Jabeur is “an example of hope, the one we always show to our children”.

Mlika says he uses photos of a young Jabeur to inspire his students today.

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

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