‘Maybe I’m not ready to be a mum yet’: Ons Jabeur on her grand slam dream

‘Maybe I’m not ready to be a mum yet’: Ons Jabeur on her grand slam dream

As the best tennis players in the world converged on the lawns of Wimbledon last summer, it soon became clear that Ons Jabeur was soaring. She produced the best tennis of her life as she tore through a brutal run of grand slam champions – Petra Kvitova, Elena Rybakina and Aryna Sabalenka – to reach her second final in a row. She then entered the final heavily favoured to become the first African and Arab tennis player to win a single grand slam title.

Instead, she froze.

Suddenly, with a title on the line, Jabeur could barely play at all. Her feet were rooted to the turf and she struggled to clear the net with basic rally forehands. It was excruciating. The Tunisian crumbled in straight sets to the unseeded Marketa Vondrousova, her record in grand slam finals falling to 0-3. It was easy to attribute Jabeur’s nerve-stricken display to the extra weight she carries on her shoulders as a reference for hundreds of millions of people from her continent and region, but the reality was much more personal.

“That loss was very difficult because it was connected to me being a mother and having a family. So that was an extra sadness for me,” says Jabeur as we speak in a small room tucked inside the Caja Mágica on the eve of the Madrid Open.

Jabeur, whose career-high ranking of No 2 is the highest an Arab or African tennis player has reached, has always been a proponent of loudly vocalising her goals, and at Wimbledon last year they were particularly significant: she had envisioned herself winning the title and then taking time away from the sport soon afterwards to have her first child with her husband, Karim Kamoun, who is also her physio. That scenario vanished with her defeat. In her recent documentary, This is Me, Jabeur explained that she and Kamoun cried “like babies” after the match, their anguish underlining the difficult choices female athletes must make between work and family. For now, the 29-year-old remains determined to continue chasing the dream of finally lifting a grand slam title.

“It is what it is,” says Jabeur. “I think it was meant to be. Maybe I’m not ready to be a mum yet. Hopefully I can get that title because I really, really want it. Obviously now coming from a couple of very difficult months, I will try to get there and hopefully one day I can be a mum and bring my kid to the tour. I’m not getting any younger and I feel like it’s important that I want to come back and have my kid with me on tour.”

A tearful Ons Jabeur after her defeat to Marketa Vondrousova in Wimbledon finalView image in fullscreen

It took many months for Jabeur to even begin to digest the Wimbledon defeat, the most painful loss of her career, and the resurfacing of a chronic knee injury this year has further torpedoed her form. Jabeur began in Madrid with a dire 3-7 record this year and she had considered taking a break for the first weeks of the clay season.

“I was in a super-bad zone and I think I couldn’t handle another loss,” Jabeur says. “But I was challenging myself, I was like: ‘OK, I’ve never been in this situation before,’ in being a top player and losing a lot of matches. But I said, also looking at some quotes and everything, for me it’s good to dare to fail.

“I think if you’re a coward, you will not go and try. I didn’t want to be a coward and I wanted to try, even losing but taking the loss with pride. That was one thing that I was proud of myself for doing, even though I had a lot of negative thoughts. But it happens, I do accept these negative thoughts and turn them into positive ones.”

Beyond her varied, wildly entertaining playing style and the trailblazing that has defined her career, Jabeur has made some notable moves off-court. She is an executive committee member of the Professional Tennis Players Association (PTPA), the contentious player association co-founded by Novak Djokovic, and this year, Jabeur became a global ambassador of the World Food Programme (WFP). One of her first campaigns was to address hunger and famine in Gaza.

“People have lived with the war for 75 years,” says Jabeur. “Maybe some people don’t know that this war going on for a lot of time. I really feel bad about what’s happening in Gaza for the Palestinian people not even having food and definitely the hospitals as well are not well equipped for injuries. I deleted social media at some time because I couldn’t look at the videos any more. It was too much and it was affecting me.

“I think in that video in Cancun, it really got the best of me. It’s frustrating to see what’s happening but I try to help as much as I can with my platform and with being the World Food ambassador as well. I wish the world could see what’s really happening because it is terrible. I don’t know how many people are not speaking about it.”

The global nature of tennis means that it is often intertwined with geopolitics, as illustrated by how Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has affected events on the tennis court. The WTA released a public statement following Hamas’ attacks in Israel on 7 October but said nothing further as the Israeli air attacks and ground incursion into the territory has killed more than 30,000 Palestinians. Jabeur says that it has not been a common talking point on tour.

“No, Palestine, it wasn’t discussed a lot, obviously,” she says. “But I’ve seen some players coming up to me, giving me their support and wanted to know what’s really happening in the world. Everybody knows and, again, everybody is wishing [for] peace. I wish they can speak about it more, but, you know, politics is politics and obviously so many people are scared to get involved.”

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Earlier this month the WTA announced that its flagship year-end event, the WTA Finals, would be held in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. The decision has received significant criticism due to the kingdom’s laws against LGBTQ+ people, its repression of dissenting opinions and the billions of dollars spent on sport and entertainment to sanitise its image. Just weeks after the ATP announced a deal with Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund, PIF’s branding is already ubiquitous across the tournament grounds and courts.

Jabeur has consistently been effusive about the prospect. She first travelled to Saudi Arabia for Misk Global Forum, an annual youth forum, and last year she played the first women’s tennis match there with Sabalenka, the world No 2. Jabeur also now has a clothing contract with Kayanee, a Saudi women’s brand. She sees the prospect of competing in Saudi Arabia as important to her goal of using her success to inspire other Arab players, especially women.

“I am always honestly biased in this position here and the decision they took,” Jabeur told me during a press conference on Saturday. “I’m very happy to be there. As an Arab woman, I’m very proud some things are moving there in Saudi. Obviously people could have different opinions. Where it bothers me is that when some people, they don’t know what’s really happening there, and are super-ignorant about what’s really happening in Saudi. So like Princess Reema [ambassador to the US] said, you should come to Saudi, be there, and judge yourself.

Ons Jabeur plays a backhand against Jelena Ostapenko during her win in Madrid on MondayView image in fullscreen

“If they really don’t like it, they would share their honest opinion. We are not telling them to say you really like it or anything. Obviously I wish to see better comments. For me, it always has been about chances, and going there not just to play tennis matches but to give the opportunity especially for younger women to see their role models from before and to believe that they can achieve anything.”

As quickly as form can deteriorate in tennis, players can also swiftly find their way again. In her first appearance at the Madrid Open since she won her biggest title here in 2022, Jabeur is into the quarter-finals after she dismantled Jelena Ostapenko, the ninth seed, 6-0, 6-4 on Monday in her third win of the tournament. She had not previously won consecutive matches all year.

In order to be successful and an authentic example for aspiring younger players, Jabeur believes it is important to be as open and honest in these difficult moments as she is when the winds are calm.

“It is a great life, but sometimes it’s travelling all the time, missing your family, getting sick in Madrid, getting a knee injury. There is a lot of struggle but how do you get through these struggles? How do you get through these difficult times? Because these difficult times do exist,” she says. “I’m not saying it’s impossible to succeed, but if you go through this you become stronger, you become more patient.”