French Open: Ons Jabeur making history for Arab women

Playing the French Open during Ramadan, Ons Jabeur, a Muslim from Tunisia, is breaking her fast.

“I’m going to eat for several days because I’m at a tournament, but I will catch up because I will have a credit with God and, hopefully, God will forgive me,” she told reporters at Roland Garros this week.

She is also breaking new ground.

When Jabeur upset sixth-seed Dominika Cibulkova in the second round, she became the first Arab woman to make the third round at a grand slam.

An achievement made all the more remarkable by the fact Jabeur is only competing in the main draw in Paris after sneaking in as a lucky loser.

Jabeur could not keep it going Friday against 2015 semifinalist Timea Bacsinszky of Switzerland — losing 6-2 6-2 — but the 22-year-old is closing in on the top 100 and potentially a direct spot at the season’s final grand slam, the US Open.

“It’s an honor to be here,” she said. “It was a dream, a dream I had a long, long time ago. But the tournament is not yet over for me. I will do my best to continue and to shine as much as I can on the court.

“Frankly, I would like to give hope to all of these youngsters who’d like to turn pro, and more specifically the Tunisians who are dreaming of Roland Garros. It’s not impossible. Work hard, and then the results will come.”

Arab men have flourished before on the men’s tour — Moroccans Younes El Aynaoui and Hicham Arazi, for example, made grand slam quarterfinals and Tunisian Malek Jaziri is currently ranked 71st.

But there have been far fewer instances of women thriving.

Maybe the last player of prominence was Tunisia’s Selima Sfar, who won a round six times at grand slams, the last occasion coming in 2008.

“In general, whether for males or females, it’s difficult to get tennis players to break through from the Arab world because we don’t have any solid systems or any support at all from the government or anything to support individual sports,” Egyptian Reem Abulleil, a tennis journalist and editor at Sport360, told CNN.

“Everyone always focuses on football. So it’s very difficult to get the right coaches or set up or the right anything to get tennis players to reach the elite level.”

“In Arab countries, the sports federations are not very focused on women and it’s a pity because they can have great potential, like the men,” Arazi added to CNN.

Jabeur — who started playing aged five, spent pockets of time training at the Mouratoglou Academy when it was close to Paris and now trains in her coach’s base of Slovakia — said finances have been a stumbling block for her in the past.

“I had lots of difficulties,” she admitted.

Financial relief

Relief however came on the eve of the French Open when she was one of 12 players chosen to receive $50,000 from the International Tennis Federation’s Grand Slam Development Fund.

The funds, the ITF said in a news release, are “a contribution towards their competition-related costs with the aim of helping them to develop as professional tennis players and compete in Grand Slam tournaments.”

“It changed everything,” Jabeur said. “First I don’t have to think about the money, I don’t have to think about anything. I just have to focus on tennis, on how I play on court.”

She played the best she ever has at a grand slam and Arazi suspects women from Arab nations are taking note.

“Of course the women are going to get motivated,” he said. “They’re going to trust themselves. It’s so great to have an Arabic woman in the third round at the French.”