Two years ago, the Tunisian Tennis Federation estimated it had only about 6,000 participants. Today, that number is north of 20,000 and is increasing.
“The number of clubs has also increased from 40 to 55,” federation president Salma El Moelhi said by phone from Monastir this week. “We even have clubs in southern Tunisia now, in Tozeur and Gabes, which do not have any tradition of tennis. Previously, tennis was for a certain class, it was bourgeois. But now all people play, in all municipalities and all cities.”
Moelhi is in Monastir to participate in the Yasmine Open, the first hockey event in the WTA tournament in Tunisia. The tournament is a complete moment for top seed Anas Jaber, who was born 10 miles down the road in Qasr Hilal and reached her first ITF final here when she was 15 in 2009. Now, she’s two: the time has arrived To the main final, No. 2 worldwide and the national champion behind the rising popularity of the sport.
“Before, you didn’t see people watching tennis in cafes, it was always football,” said Shehab Belhaj Youssef, tournament director. “Now, it’s tennis. When the Ons play, no one even watches Real Madrid or Juventus. They turn the channel into the Ons match.”
Jaber herself played a major role in bringing tennis back home. As a last-minute replacement for Emma Radocano at last year’s Abu Dhabi Show, Vicky Gunnarsson, IMG’s Tennis Events Director, impressed with her talent and ability to connect with audiences. When Gunnarsson was scouting locations for an available tournament penalty, Jabeur gave a call, and the player reached out to Mouelhi.
It was a dream come true for Moulhi, who had always aspired to host the WTA Championships. But there was a problem: With five months left, there was no proper tennis court in the country.
“When we started this tournament, we had nothing,” Youssef said. “In June, there was nothing here, there was no center court – just eight for the futures players. We had to build a central court, we had to build a stadium, whatever we were asked.”
Youssef said that the championship slogan is “motivated by the impossible” in reference to this race against time.
“I told them, as president, that we can host, and there is no need to worry,” al-Muwailihi said. “But really, it wasn’t easy fighting every day for this.”
The tournament was originally intended for Tunisia, the country’s capital – but Moelhi did not find a sponsor to help with the necessary construction. The Magic Hotels Skanes resort in Monastir, which has hosted ITF tournaments year-round for more than a decade, has proven more apt, and the Tunisian government stepped in to provide funding.
The ITF series – in which Jabeur made her first steps into the professional game, and where Youssef was tournament director for three years – was also a factor for Gunnarsson, who took a leap of faith in awarding the license to Tunisia. .
“It looked like it would be a missed opportunity if we didn’t do it,” Gunnarsson said. “Just because of how fast tennis has grown and the role the Ons have played in it. [The ITF events] Show that there is a popular base to support it. And it’s great to complete the pyramid of championships, so to speak.”
El Moelhi said there is historical significance for Monastir as a site for a women’s tennis tournament as well.
“It is the birthplace of our first president, Habib Bourguiba, who liberated women in this country. He led Tunisia to independence. [in 1956] And under his leadership, for the first time a woman could go to school. And now Ons is the woman who makes all Tunisia happy, and she was born here too. Holding the tournament in Monastir means a lot to Tunisian women.”
At the heart of this lies Jaber’s personality. The 28-year-old charms almost everyone she meets. Her hot shots excite audiences and her sense of humor has won her over the media. Jaber also has a good reputation for her work with children. (Recent commentator and former WTA player Anne Keuthavong revealed how Jaber is now her children’s favorite player after letting them play for Wimbledon runners-up after this year’s final.)
“People love it everywhere, right?” Gunnarson said. Mwaelhi is impressed by Jaber’s realistic behavior: “She talks to all people, she goes to the street and she is modest.”
Youssef, who trained Jaber when she was eight, said she hasn’t changed.
“She loved bringing the opponent into the net, making a hit, putting him back into the net, making another hit. That was fun for her when she was a little kid. She loved winning, but she was always kind to the opponent too. And she’s always smiling, always positive.”
Hence, she has been dubbed the “Minister of Happiness” – but Jaber’s actions aren’t the only reason. With Tunisia in the fist cost of living crisis Suffering from food shortages in stores, there is a political dimension to the sprig as well.
“Tunisia is now in a very difficult situation, especially economically,” Youssef said. “She is the only one who makes Tunisians happy. When they see her win, we are all happy because she lets us forget about our political problems when we watch her.”
For Mulhi, who was also re-elected as vice president of the Arab Tennis Federation this year, Jaber’s success is also a personal inspiration.
“Once is an example not only for the players but for me as a leader,” she said. “I have to set a good example as an Arab and Muslim leader, for other women to say, ‘We can do everything.'” Ons’ success prompted me. It’s not easy for some people to accept a woman boss. Before, when I traveled, I felt like that. But now I have confidence I can say, we have No. 2 in the world.”
In Monastir, Gaber’s popularity paid off, as tickets for the first round match and weekend packages for the semi-finals and final sold out in a matter of minutes. The atmosphere in the 2,500-capacity central court after her opening defeat to Anne Lee was impressive, and each of Jaber’s outstanding shots was greeted with brilliant brilliance.
“Every time I walk around, I come back to Monastir,” she said afterwards. “It’s so special for me to have this event. I really couldn’t believe it, I was going out. I was playing a WTA 250 event, but in Tunisia. It felt weird for me to connect those dots. I’ve seen so many players play on the Their land, and I know how hard it is not to want to disappoint the fans. But it’s a new experience for me, a different pressure, and I’m so glad I went through it.”
Jaber is keen to live up to expectations not only as a competitor, but as a host – a role she has played with self-confidence, as I discussed With Reem Abu Al-Layl Arab News this week. She chose the nearby historic El-Jem Amphitheater as the destination for the players’ trip, and herself chose jasmine flowers for the players’ party.
Jasmine flowers, for which the tournament is named, also have a deeper meaning.
“Jasmine is the national flower of Tunisia and finds its fragrance in every home,” Youssef said. “But also, we had Jasmine Revolution here [in 2010-11, when the government was overthrown].
“This inspired the name too – because this tournament is a revolution in Tunisian tennis.”