London, United Kingdom – In Tunisia, Ons Jabeur is lovingly known as the Minister of Happiness.
For the 12-million-strong African country that finds itself in an economic and refugee crisis, Jabeur brings hope and joy.
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The 28-year-old from the historic town of Ksar Hellal has come a long way from the time she followed her mother to local tennis courts as a toddler. In a country where football is king and tennis once lurked far behind in popularity, Jabeur has won hearts with her success and warmth.
Representatives of the @Ons_Jabeur Fan Club were out in force again 🇹🇳
— wta (@WTA) July 14, 2023
“How can you not love that smile?” said Slim Belhaj, a British Tunisian man who is a self-proclaimed “super fan” of the Wimbledon finalist.
“No disrespect to other players, but they are so focused on the result that they don’t smile very often,” he shrugged, saying that Jabeur’s ability to combine emotions with skill make her unique and universally admired.
“Even her opponents love her and she is very good friends with most current and former players,” he added.
‘Great to see a Muslim woman excelling in sport’
Indeed, every time the Tunisian progresses to the last stages of a major tournament, players are quick to express their support and excitement.
Former world number one and six-time grand slam champion Kim Clijsters was quick to tweet: “Onsome win!” after Jabeur booked her place in the final.
Onsome win ! 💪🏻
— Kim Clijsters (@Clijsterskim) July 13, 2023
Even Aryna Sabalenka, the second-seeded pre-tournament favourite that Jabeur beat in the semifinal, tweeted: “Big congrats to @onsjabeur on an incredible performance. I hate you now, but u know I love u anyway! good luck in the final, you got this”.
Thank u to those who supported me during this couple of weeks! I really enjoyed my time here at Wimbledon 🤍
Big congrats to @onsjabeur on an incredible performance 💪 I hate you now,but u know I love u anyway!🙈😂good luck in the final,you got this💪
And I KNOW there’s always…
— Sabalenka Aryna (@SabalenkaA) July 13, 2023
Sasha Bhat, a mental health director at the National Health Service in England, said Jabeur’s display of warmth for opponents and respect for her own values sets her apart.
“It’s great to see a Muslim woman excelling in sport and not being afraid to be faithful,” Bhat said.
“I saw her play live – she is an amazing player and so fun to watch,” she added.
When Jabeur lost last year’s Wimbledon final to Kazakhstan’s Elena Rybakina, she was visibly distraught and admitted as much during the course of her press conferences this year.
“That match is still too painful for me to watch,” Jabeur said after her win over the same opponent in the quarter-final on Wednesday.
“Wimbledon is the one tournament I have always wanted to win, so I am hoping to do it this time,” she said with her trademark glowing smile.
— Wimbledon (@Wimbledon) July 14, 2023
‘Ons in a billion’
Belhaj, the Tunisian fan who moved to England 30 years ago, says all of Tunisia will come to a stop when Jabeur steps on centre court on Saturday.
“People are going to fill up coffee shops, restaurants and fix watch parties with their friends when Ons plays,” he said.
“She is our only hope for a gold medal or a big sports title, she gives us hope and joy – she’s Ons in a billion,” Belhaj said with a chuckle as he showed off his collection of posters that he has prepared ahead of the final.
The world number six has a habit of having a go at some of her opponents with humourous posts on social media. Her latest target was men’s leading grand slam winner Novak Djokovic, whom she teased for copying her post-match reaction by patting the centre court grass.
Her posts after each successive win have been flooded with fans owning the player as their own.
Comments such as “pride of the Arab world”, “Arabia is winning” and “the whole of Africa is proud of you”, are interspersed with congratulatory messages from football stars, film and tv celebrities and social media influencers.
‘Her journey gives us hope’
Back at Wimbledon, every time Jabeur has stepped on court, she has had unabashed partisan support from the crowd. Their reason for backing the excitable athlete is simple: her rare ability to connect with the fans while playing a high-pressure match.
“She has got so much integrity and charisma when she plays, it shines through when she is on court and makes it very exciting to watch,” Harj Rehal, a London-based tennis fan, told Al Jazeera, as she settled herself on the famous Wimbledon Hill to watch Jabeur’s semifinal.
“What she stands for, where she has come from and how she has made her journey makes her very relatable and gives hope that with the support of family and friends, you can live your dreams,” Rehal said.
Jabeur’s husband Karim Kamoun, a former fencer, has been her fitness coach for more than six years.
“How amazing is it for her husband to be her number one supporter but also play a part in her success on court,” Rehal said.
In Tunisia, Jabeur says, all her fans have turned into coaches.
“Some of them have been texting my mental conditioning coach [Melanie Maillard] to pass on advice for me, and I wouldn’t be surprised if they message Karim and Issam [coach] as well,” she told Al Jazeera after her semifinal win.
But how is Tunisia’s Minister of Happiness handling the weight of expectations?
“They are a funny bunch but they always remind me: win or lose, we love you – but this time, I’m hoping to make history for Tunisia and all of Africa.”