Two years ago, the Tunisian Tennis Federation estimated it had only about 6,000 participants. Today, that number is north of 20,000 and growing.
“The number of clubs has also increased, from 40 to 55,” said Salma Mouelhi, the president of the federation, over the phone from Monastir this week. “We even have clubs in the south of Tunisia now, in Tozeur and Gabes, which don’t have any tennis tradition. Before, tennis was for a certain class, it was bourgeois. But now all the people play, in all the municipalities and all the cities.”
Mouelhi is in Monastir for the Jasmin Open, the first Hologic WTA Tour event in Tunisia. The tournament is a full-circle moment for its top seed Ons Jabeur, who was born 10 miles down the road in Ksar Hellal and reached her first ITF final here as a 15-year-old in 2009. Now, she is a two- time major finalist, World No.2 and the national heroine behind the sport’s spike in popularity.
“Before, you’d never see people watching tennis in coffee shops — it was always football,” tournament director Chiheb Belhaj Youssef said. “Now, it’s tennis. When Ons is playing, no one is even watching Real Madrid or Juventus. They turn the channel to Ons’ match.”
Jabeur herself played a key role in bringing tennis home. As a last-minute replacement for Emma Raducanu at last year’s Abu Dhabi exhibition, she impressed Vickie Gunnarsson, IMG’s director of tennis events, with her talent and ability to connect to audiences. When Gunnarsson was scouting locations for an available tournament sanction, she gave Jabeur a call, and the player put her in touch with Mouelhi.
It was a dream come true for Mouelhi, who had long harbored an ambition to host a WTA tournament. But there was a problem: With five months to go, there was no suitable tennis stadium in the country.
“When we took this tournament on, we didn’t have anything,” Youssef said. “In June, there was nothing here, no Center Court — just eight courts for the Futures players. We had to build Center Court, we had to build a stadium, everything that was asked of us.”
The tournament’s tagline, “Driven by the impossible,” is a reference to this race against time,” Youssef said.
“I told them, as president, that we could host and not to worry,” Mouelhi said. “But really, it was not easy to fight every day for this.”
The tournament was originally intended for Tunis, the country’s capital — but Mouelhi could not find a sponsor to help with the necessary construction. The Magic Hotels Skanes resort in Monastir, which has hosted year-round ITF tournaments for more than a decade, proved more amenable, and the Tunisian government stepped up to provide funding.
The ITF series — which had provided Jabeur herself with her first steps into the pro game, and where Youssef had been tournament director for three years — was also a factor for Gunnarsson, who took a leap of faith in awarding the license to Tunisia .
“It just seemed like it would be an opportunity missed if we didn’t go for it,” Gunnarsson said. “Just because of how quickly tennis had grown and what role Ons had played in it. [The ITF events] showed there’s a grassroots to support it. And it’s just great to complete the pyramid of tournaments, so to speak.”
Mouelhi said that there’s a historic importance to Monastir as the location for a women’s tennis tournament, too.
“It’s the birth city of our first president, Habib Bourguiba, who emancipated women in this country. He led Tunisia to independence [in 1956] and under him, for the first time women could go to school. And now Ons is the woman who’s making all of Tunisia happy, and she was also born here. The tournament being in Monastir means a lot to Tunisian women.”
At the heart of this is Jabeur’s personality. The 28-year-old charms just about everyone she comes across. Her hot shots thrill audiences and her good humor has won over the media. Jabeur also has a reputation for her work with children. (Commentator and former WTA player Anne Keothavong recently revealed how Jabeur is now her own kids’ favorite player after she let them play with her Wimbledon runner-up plate after this year’s final.)
“People just love her everywhere, right?” Gunnarsson said. Mouelhi is impressed by Jabeur’s down-to-earth demeanor: “She speaks with all people, she goes in the street and she’s humble.”
Youssef, who coached Jabeur when she was 8 years old, said she hasn’t changed.
“She loved to bring the opponent to net, make a lob, bring them back to net, make another lob. That was her fun when she was a little girl. She loved to win, but she was always nice to the opponent too. And she’s always smiling, always positive.”
The fans’ view on Ons Jabeur, Minister of Happiness
Consequently, she has been nicknamed “Minister of Happiness” — but Jabeur’s disposition isn’t the only reason. With Tunisia in the grip of a cost-of-living crisis and enduring food shortages in shops, there’s a political dimension to the soubriquet too.
“Tunisia is now in a very difficult situation, especially economically,” Youssef said. “She’s the only one that makes Tunisians happy. When they see her winning, we’re all happy because she lets us forget about our political problems when we’re watching her.”
For Mouelhi, who was also re-elected vice-president of the Arab Tennis Union this year, Jabeur’s success is also a personal inspiration.
“Ons is an example not just to players but to me as a leader,” she said. “I have to set a good example as an Arab and Muslim woman leader, for the other women to say, ‘We can do everything.’ Ons’ success pushed me. It’s not easy for some people to accept a woman president. Before, when I traveled, I felt that. But now I have confidence. I can say, we have the No.2 in the world.”
Win or lose, Ons Jabeur takes great pride as an inspirational figure
In Monastir, Jabeur’s popularity has paid off, with tickets for her first-round match and weekend packages for the semifinals and final selling out within minutes. The atmosphere on the 2,500-capacity Center Court for her opening defeat of Ann Li was electric, and each of Jabeur’s trademark finesse shots was cheered rapturously.
“Every time I go around, I come back to Monastir,” she said afterwards. “It is so special for me to have this event. I couldn’t really believe it, walking out. I was playing a WTA 250 event, but in Tunisia. It felt so weird for me to connect those dots. I’ve seen so many players get to play at home, and I know how difficult it seemed with not wanting to disappoint the crowd. But it’s a new experience for me, a different pressure, and I’m very glad I had it.”
Jabeur is keen to live up to expectations not just as a competitor, but as a host — a role she has taken on with aplomb, as she discussed with Reem Abulleil of Arab News this week. She chose the nearby historic El Jem amphitheater as the destination for a players’ excursion, and personally selected the jasmine flowers for the players’ party.
Those jasmine flowers, which the tournament is named for, also have a deeper meaning.
“Jasmine is the national flower of Tunisia, and you’ll find its perfume in every house,” Youssef said. “But also, we had the Jasmine Revolution here [in 2010-11, when the government was overthrown].
“That inspired the name as well — because this tournament is a revolution in Tunisian tennis.”