Two years in the past, the Tunisian Tennis Federation estimated it had solely about 6,000 members. As we speak, that quantity is north of 20,000 and rising.
“The variety of golf equipment has additionally elevated, from 40 to 55,” stated Salma Mouelhi, the president of the federation, over the telephone from Monastir this week. “We even have golf equipment within the south of Tunisia now, in Tozeur and Gabes, which haven’t any tennis custom. Earlier than, tennis was for a sure class, it was bourgeois. However now all of the folks play, in all of the municipalities and all of the cities.”
Mouelhi is in Monastir for the Jasmin Open, the primary Hologic WTA Tour occasion in Tunisia. The event is a full-circle second for its high seed Ons Jabeur, who was born 10 miles down the street in Ksar Hellal and reached her first ITF last right here as a 15-year-old in 2009. Now, she is a two- time main finalist, World No.2 and the nationwide heroine behind the game’s spike in reputation.
“Earlier than, you’d by no means see folks watching tennis in espresso retailers — it was all the time soccer,” event director Chiheb Belhaj Youssef stated. “Now, it is tennis. When Ons is enjoying, nobody is even watching Actual Madrid or Juventus. They flip the channel to Ons’ match.”
Jabeur herself performed a key position in bringing tennis residence. As a last-minute substitute for Emma Raducanu eventually 12 months’s Abu Dhabi exhibition, she impressed Vickie Gunnarsson, IMG’s director of tennis occasions, together with her expertise and skill to hook up with audiences. When Gunnarsson was scouting areas for an accessible event sanction, she gave Jabeur a name, and the participant put her in contact with Mouelhi.
It was a dream come true for Mouelhi, who had lengthy harbored an ambition to host a WTA event. However there was an issue: With 5 months to go, there was no appropriate tennis stadium within the nation.
“After we took this event on, we did not have something,” Youssef stated. “In June, there was nothing right here, no Heart Courtroom — simply eight courts for the Futures gamers. We needed to construct Heart Courtroom, we needed to construct a stadium, all the pieces that was requested of us.”
The event’s tagline, “Pushed by the inconceivable,” is a reference to this race in opposition to time,” Youssef stated.
“I instructed you, as president, that we may host and to not fear,” Mouelhi stated. “However actually, it wasn’t simple to struggle every single day for this.”
The event was initially meant for Tunis, the nation’s capital — however Mouelhi couldn’t discover a sponsor to assist with the mandatory development. The Magic Lodges Skanes resort in Monastir, which has hosted year-round ITF tournaments for greater than a decade, proved extra amenable, and the Tunisian authorities stepped as much as present funding.
The ITF collection — which had offered Jabeur herself together with her first steps into the professional recreation, and the place Youssef had been event director for 3 years — was additionally an element for Gunnarsson, who took a leap of religion in awarding the license to Tunisia .
“It simply appeared like it might be a chance missed if we did not go for it,” Gunnarsson stated. “Simply due to how rapidly tennis had grown and what position Ons had performed in it. [The ITF events] confirmed there is a grass roots to help it. And it is simply nice to finish the pyramid of tournaments, so to talk.”
Mouelhi stated that there is a historic significance to Monastir as the placement for a girls’s tennis event, too.
“It is the start metropolis of our first president, Habib Bourguiba, who emancipated girls on this nation. He led Tunisia to independence [in 1956] and underneath him, for the primary time girls may go to high school. And now Ons is the girl who’s making all of Tunisia blissful, and she or he was additionally born right here. The event being in Monastir means loads to Tunisian girls.”
On the coronary heart of that is Jabeur’s character. The 28-year-old charms nearly everybody she comes throughout. Her scorching pictures thrill audiences and her good humor has received over the media. Jabeur additionally has a repute for her work with kids. (Commentator and former WTA participant Anne Keothavong not too long ago revealed how Jabeur is now her personal youngsters’ favourite participant after she allow them to play together with her Wimbledon runner-up plate after this 12 months’s last.)
“Individuals simply love her in every single place, proper?” Gunnarsson stated. Mouelhi is impressed by Jabeur’s down-to-earth demeanor: “She speaks with all folks, she goes on the street and she or he’s humble.”
Youssef, who coached Jabeur when she was 8 years previous, stated she hasn’t modified.
“She cherished to carry the opponent to internet, make a lob, carry them again to internet, make one other lob. That was her enjoyable when she was just a little woman. She cherished to win, however she was all the time good to the opponent too. And he or she’s all the time smiling, all the time constructive.”
The followers’ view on Ons Jabeur, Minister of Happiness
Consequently, she has been nicknamed “Minister of Happiness” — however Jabeur’s disposition is not the one motive. With Tunisia within the grip of a cost-of-living disaster and enduring meals shortages in retailers, there is a political dimension to the soubriquet too.
“Tunisia is now in a really tough state of affairs, particularly economically,” Youssef stated. “She’s the one one which makes Tunisians blissful. After they see her profitable, we’re all blissful as a result of she lets us overlook about our political issues once we’re watching her.”
For Mouelhi, who was additionally re-elected vice-president of the Arab Tennis Union this 12 months, Jabeur’s success can be a private inspiration.
“Ons is an instance not simply to gamers however to me as a pacesetter,” she stated. “I’ve to set instance as an Arab and Muslim lady chief, for the opposite girls to say, ‘We are able to do all the pieces.’ Ons’ success pushed me. It is not simple for some folks to just accept a girl president. Earlier than, once I traveled, I felt that. However now I’ve confidence. I can say, now we have the No.2 on the planet.”
Win or lose, Ons Jabeur takes nice delight as an inspirational determine
In Monastir, Jabeur’s reputation has paid off, with tickets for her first-round match and weekend packages for the semifinals and last promoting out inside minutes. The ambiance on the two,500-capacity Heart Courtroom for her opening defeat of Ann Li was electrical, and every of Jabeur’s trademark finesse pictures was cheered rapturously.
“Each time I’m going round, I come again to Monastir,” she stated afterwards. “It’s so particular for me to have this occasion. I could not actually imagine it, strolling out. I used to be enjoying a WTA 250 occasion, however in Tunisia. It felt so bizarre for me to attach these dots. I’ve seen so many gamers get to play at residence, and I understand how tough it appeared with not eager to disappoint the gang. But it surely’s a brand new expertise for me, a special stress, and I am very glad I had it.”
Jabeur is eager to dwell as much as expectations not simply as a competitor, however as a number — a job she has taken on with aplomb, as she mentioned with Reem Abulleil of Arab Information this week. She selected the close by historic El Jem amphitheater because the vacation spot for a gamers’ tour, and personally chosen the jasmine flowers for the gamers’ occasion.
These jasmine flowers, which the event is called for, even have a deeper that means.
“Jasmine is the nationwide flower of Tunisia, and you will find its fragrance in each home,” Youssef stated. “But additionally, we had the Jasmine Revolution right here [in 2010-11, when the government was overthrown].
“That impressed the identify as effectively — as a result of this event is a revolution in Tunisian tennis.”