African countries

Tennis star Ons Jabeur “boosts sport in Arab and African countries”

DUBAI: Just hours before Tunisian tennis superstar Ons Jabeur kicks off her Wimbledon 2022 campaign against Sweden’s Mirjam Bjorklund, she has been confirmed as world number two, the highest ranking of her career.

It was also the highest ever for an African or Arab, female or male tennis player.

For Emirati tennis specialist Khalid Al-Ali, Jabeur and other players from North Africa are helping to raise the profile and popularity of tennis like never before.

“You can divide the Arab world into two, and the Maghreb countries, like Tunisia, Morocco and Algeria, in addition to Egypt, are very advanced in tennis,” he said. “In addition to Ons, there is the Egyptian player Mayar Sherif, who ranked in the sixties. And it’s also proof that women’s tennis is more advanced now than men’s tennis, where no one has reached those levels.

As a tennis enthusiast, Al-Ali appreciates, especially at this time of year, the established traditions that are dear to Wimbledon, and the intense on-court rivalry for the men’s and women’s titles, which is this year. tainted by a possible changing of the guard and politics.

“Wimbledon started in 1877, it has such a rich heritage,” he said. “Traditions such as wearing all white and no billboards around the courts have been maintained until now. However, there are changes this year. Players used to enter the pitch from the side, but this year there is a new tradition and players will enter from the middle of the pitch.

“In addition, this is the first time that center court at Wimbledon has been opened for training before the start of the tournament. Traditionally, no one was allowed to walk onto the (centre) court before the first official match, which are two new additions.

But perhaps the biggest change this year is in the staff.

“For the first time in 24 years, Roger Federer will miss the championship,” Al-Ali said. “So that differentiates this edition, as does the ban on Russian players. For this reason, the ATP has withdrawn all the points that would have been awarded, as they consider that politics interferes with the sport.

In Federer’s absence, eyes will, once again, inevitably turn to defending champion Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal, now ranked third and fourth in the world.

“Djokovic has won the last three tournaments, and logically, on grass, he is the first seed,” Al-Ali said. “Afterwards as always, Nadal, even when we don’t consider him a favourite, imposes himself on the tournament as we saw at Roland Garros. Before Roland Garros, he had lost in Rome against Denis Shapovalov, the Canadian.

“And there were doubts that it would be his last tournament, because his body can’t take injuries anymore. But he won it and now his confidence is high, and he hopes to achieve something that Novak has almost succeeded but could not. This is the Golden Grand Slam, winning all four (majors) in the same year. He has already won in Australia and at Roland Garros. He enters Wimbledon with his dream still alive.

“Last year Djokovic won the Australian Open, then Roland Garros and Wimbledon, and headed to the US Open with high hopes of achieving something that only Rod Laver, the Australian player, had. He did it twice, once before professionalism, which didn’t count in the record books, but came back to do it again after World War II.

Djokovic lost the US Open final in straight sets to Daniil Medvedev. That setback and the unsavory episode at the Australian Open – when he was detained for not being vaccinated against COVID-19 – took a toll on his morale.

“But he has a great chance to fight back at Wimbledon,” Al-Ali said. “Among the favorites will also be (Stefanos) Tsitsipas, (Matteo) Berrettini, who has won two grass court tournaments this year and was the losing runner-up at Wimbledon last year against Djokovic. You can limit it to those players.

“Andy Murray is coming back as a wild card because he has a low ranking,” added Al-Ali. “Physically he may not be ready, but playing in front of his home crowd could see him adapt.”

On the women’s side, Wimbledon is once again welcoming the great Serena Williams who, with 23 Grand Slam titles, still hopes to equal the women’s record of 24 held by Margaret Court.

“Serena Williams returns as a wildcard after a long absence,” Al-Ali said. “She played a double (match) with Ons Jabeur at Eastbourne, where they reached the semi-final, but Ons had to withdraw with injury. It was a minor injury but she didn’t want to make it worse before Wimbledon.

“Williams looked heavier and wasn’t the Serena we’re used to. But she still has a shot or two that suits the grass, so she could possibly advance with the favourites.

“Of course (world number one) Iga Swiatek is one of the favourites, as is the Swiss player (Belinda) Bencic. And then there is the return of Petra Kvitova, who won at Eastbourne and was a two-time Wimbledon champion.

“In women’s tennis, there are always surprises,” Al-Ali said.

Jabeur, although now the world number two is ranked third at Wimbledon, and the Emirati commentator has high hopes for her despite the heightened level of expectation.

“She reached the quarter-finals last year, which was her best performance at a Grand Slam,” Al-Ali said. “She’s under a lot of pressure, but she’s playing wonderfully and her style suits the grass. We might see her in the final.

Another race in the final laps, and his army of fans in the Arab world – not to mention his hero status – will continue to grow. For Al-Ali, it is hoped that his achievements, and those of other African Arabs, will one day spread to the rest of the Middle East.

“Geographical location always plays a role, whether in sports or in any other field,” he said. “Proximity, costs, mentality, being close to the heart of this sport. It is a sport that started in France and was then (organized by) the English. Basically, there is a certain art of living, a lot of sacrifices for the players, especially the female players. But we see Moroccans, Algerians, Tunisians and Egyptians excel in this sport. And of course, population size is a factor. They knew this education earlier than in this region.

In the UAE and the GCC, the popularity of tennis continues to grow, thanks to the growing number of events taking place, he said.

“Fortunately, things are improving here. All the best players in the world come here to Dubai, so the popularity of this sport has increased,” Al-Ali said. “What Ons is doing is similar to what happened in China. China is a huge and big country, but tennis only became popular after Li Na won two Grand Slams, Roland Garros and Australian Open. After that, the country began to pay attention.

“So we hope that with Ons Jabeur, and after the rise of the three Moroccans Karim Alami, Hicham Arazi and Younes El Aynaoui, others will come,” he added. “There is Abdullah Shelbayh from Jordan who plays at junior level at Wimbledon and won the doubles there. He is training at Rafael Nadal’s academy, I have a lot of hope for him.

With the right support and funding, Al-Ali is certain the future will see more Arab tennis players follow in Jabeur’s footsteps.

“We are still optimistic,” he said. “We have a beautiful academy in Fujairah, established by Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al-Maktoum, and I sit on the board there. When Ons Jabeur was a junior, she played in the tournament there after entering the ranks of the ITF, and Alexander Zverev also won in Fujairah.

“We are no strangers to organizing the best tournaments in this region, what we need to do now is introduce development programs, we don’t have clear programs at the moment. There is also a lack of equality in funding between sports We need to ensure that individual sports like tennis are supported just like football.