A historic achievement was in the offing last week, when Ons Jabeur met Anett Kontaveit in the quarterfinals of the WTA 1000 tournament in Indian Wells. With a win, Jabeur would become the first Arab of either gender to earn a ranking tennis’ elite Top 10.

With Kontaveit serving at a key moment in the match, Jabeur butchered an opportunity to create a break point. She did not hurl her racquet in disgust, or turn and scream imprecations at her team. She did not bust out the woe-is-me grimace.

Jabeur hit the deck and, with form that would please a Marine Corps drill instructor, she cranked out a couple of perfect push-ups.

“It was a tough game,” Jabeur later said on Tennis Channel. “I had a chance to make a break point, but I lost it. I like to keep it with humor. When I'm joking and laughing, that's when I play good. I just wanted to laugh and do a few pushups.”

The anecdote tells a lot about Jabeur, a crafty 5’6” dynamo who leads the WTA in wins (48) and racquet wizardry. The Tunisian Trickster is indefatigable, her work ethic is unsurpassed and, in a profession that can be very tough on its best practitioners, she is the jocular jock, living the dream.

Jabeur went on to defeat Kontaveit that day. Although she lost in the semifinals, the breakthrough was assured, as she appeared at No. 8 in rankings yesterday morning. She also found herself in the thick of the hunt for a berth in the WTA Final, the year-end championships that will be played this year in Guadalajara, Mexico. Jabeur’s resolve and diligence paid off in a big way 2012, helping to lift her above even the expectations of many of her more ardent supporters.

“This is something that I've been wanting, maybe you knew me when I was 16,” Jabeur said in a Zoom press conference at Indian Wells. “Even before. I always wanted to get there, to be No. 1 in the world. Top 10 I know is the beginning.

“I know I deserve this place from a long time since I was playing well. But I want to prove that I deserve to be here, I deserve to be one of the Top 10 players.”

I'm learning every day. Trying to manage. It's not easy. Unfortunately, some people, they don't understand it's not easy. Ons Jabeur


Fans from first-world tennis nations don’t always appreciate how challenging it is for a player from off the grid to succeed in a sport that is extremely demanding—but also soaked in privilege and sophistication. Imagine being a player far from home and not knowing what you’re looking at on a menu, having to order by pointing at it. Imagine sitting in a player lounge among pros speaking eight or 10 languages, none of them yours. International Tennis Hall of Famer Li Na addressed what it takes for an outlier to survive and flourish during the Wuhan tournament about six years ago.

“I'm very proud of myself. . . I have never taken a little time to thank myself,” she said. “Now, at the age of 32, I want to thank the Li Na at the age of 15, because it is because of the perseverance in my youthfulness that I have achieved my goals. So maybe today at the age of 32, Li Na is not as tough as, as strong as she was in the age of 15. But still, I want to thank myself.”

It hasn’t been much easier for Jabeur than for Li. The obstacles were similar and, perhaps surprisingly, not limited to the problems posed by foreign cultures. Domestic expectations can be unrealistic, the home-front critics and pundits poorly or ill-informed.

“I'm learning every day,” Jabeur said, “Trying to manage. It's not easy. Unfortunately, some people, they don't understand it's not easy.”

When bidden, Jabeur readily ticks off the advantages she was denied by her nationality: first-rate facilities, role models and competitors to inspire and push her, domestic—or accessible—tournaments where she could accumulate experience. She has been turned down by potential sponsors, and said it was “not fair.” But a beat later she added, “Everybody had like probably a difficult career. I'm not saying I have the most difficult one. I just wanted to really do this. It's my dream. I didn't want to depend on a sponsor or someone who doesn't even care about tennis or doesn't even care about sport in general.”

The upside for Jabeur is a degree of wealth that is unimaginable to most of her compatriots, as well as the opportunity to become a national hero and make a permanent mark in tennis without having to win a dozen Grand Slam titles.

“You could see in Montreal a lot of Tunisians,” said the 27-year old in California. “Everywhere I go. New York, here. The support is unbelievable. I can read, like, a few messages. I saw that people were waking up [in the middle of the night, to watch my quarterfinal match]. Thank God I won. I didn't make them regret waking up early.”

WATCH: Our interview with Ons Jabeur at Indian Wells


As a child, Jabeur lived in the third-largest city in Tunisia, Sousse. The historic, medieval city center is a maze of winding, narrow streets, featuring, among other things, a kasbah and medina. But the city surrounding the center is modern—although the club to which Jabeur’s family belonged lacked tennis courts. She did her early training on a catch-as-catch-can basis on the courts of various nearby hotels.

Inevitably, word about the precocity of the cheerful, bouncy youth got around. By 12, she was living with her family in the capital city of Tunis, where she was invited to attend and train at the national high school for gifted athletes. Tennis was uncharted sporting territory in Tunisia, which may not have been an entirely bad thing. Without elite (by western standards) coaches, academies and training programs, Jabeur enjoyed greater latitude to develop a freewheeling game loaded with the bounty of her soft hands: delicate drop shots, tricky spins, deft volleys—a style that pleasantly mirrors her personality.

Jabeur has said that she cherishes the opportunity to be “like an artist.” In late 2019, she told the WTA’s Alex Macpherson, “It's like drawing a picture, doing dropshots and slices. I like variety, to change the rhythm, and I like to be different. I like to do amazing shots and I like to do them from angles where it's hard to achieve on the court—for me to do these shots gives me the joy to be on the court. And when I'm enjoying the game, that's when I'm better.”

The downside of Jabeur’s formative experience far from the madding crowd was a late start as a pro. She made history when she won the girls’ singles at the French Open in 2011, thereby becoming the first Arab woman to win a Grand Slam singles title (albeit a junior one), and just the second Arab overall. Pioneering Egyptian Ismail El Shafei won the Wimbledon boys’ title in 1964.

That triumph was in Jabeur’s penultimate tournament as a junior. The next, critical step to WTA stardom proved more challenging. Jabeur spent a lot of time negotiating a relatively flat learning curve, sometimes spinning her wheels, on the minor-league ITF Tour for nearly a decade. She was ranked outside the Top 100 until the late summer of 2017, when she finally earned a sufficiently high-ranking to merit direct acceptance into tour-level events.

Jabeur was unable to sustain that momentum, though, dropping to No. 180 in June 2018. That taught her the value of consistency, that nothing can ever be taken for granted. She wanted a seat at the big table again, and claimed it at the end of the year. As a qualifier at the Kremlin Cup, she toppled three Top 25 players, including then No. 8 Sloane Stephens, to finish runner-up to Daria Kasatkina. Jabeur’s ranking shot up to No. 62.

Jabeur represented Tunisia at the 2020 Olympics, and always wears her heart—and her country—on her sleeve.

Jabeur represented Tunisia at the 2020 Olympics, and always wears her heart—and her country—on her sleeve.

Digging in at that level, Jabeur rose to No. 32 by the end of 2020. It June of this year she bagged her first WTA title, on grass, at Birmingham. While titles have eluded her, she has consistently made quarterfinals and semis.

“The mentality changed,” Jabreur said at Indian Wells. “I think everything is following my ranking, the way I'm playing on the court, the way I'm handling a lot of things. . . I want finals. I had three this year and won one, but I want more.”

Jabeur’s success has created a cottage industry in second-guessing her every move, which includes using husband Karim Mamoun, a former fencer, as her fitness trainer. She also caught flak in early 2020 for hiring a long-time acquaintance, former Tunisian Davis Cupper Issam Jellali, as her full-time coach. But Jabeur is proud of her roots, and she likes be surrounded by people who speak the same language—imagine that!—and understand her culture. She insists that her game bear the stamp, “Made in Tunisia.”

“I have to step up and say something about my team because we've been attacked a lot, mostly in Tunisia, maybe a little bit outside,” Jabeur said. “It's really painful to see people talking without knowing what's going on. Issam is such an amazing coach. He proved that with me. I really don't care what he did in the past, what player he worked with. I don't really care. I care about what he's doing with me.”

She added, “We are winning. We are doing well. We are making mistakes maybe. We are learning. I am finally finding my joy, kind of the goals I've been waiting for a long time.”

Fans are finding their own joy in Jabeur’s evolution as well. A game that can bring a smile to the face of the most jaded of spectators is about as rare as a Top 10 player coming out of Tunisia.