"Ons Jabeur illuminates the image of Tunisia", assures its first coach

“Ons Jabeur illuminates the image of Tunisia”, assures its first coach

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This Saturday, the Tunisian Ons Jabeur, world No. 2, will try to write history once again at Wimbledon. At 27, the first player from the African continent to reach the final of a Major in the Open era wants to become the first to win a Grand Slam tournament. She will have to beat another neophyte at this level, the Kazakh Elena Rybakina, 23 years old and 23rd in the WTA ranking.

From Hammam Sousse, 130 km south of Tunis, Nabil Mlika will not miss a thing of the match in front of his TV. The 55-year-old coach shaped Ons Jabeur, from his debut at the age of 3 and a half until his departure for the sports high school in the capital, nine years later.

Nabil Mlika, the first coach of Ons Jabeur, during a lesson in the Hammam Sousse club, May 13, 2022. – Bechir Taieb / AFP

The 50-year-old reveals with passion the career and personality of “the Minister of Happiness”, whose fame has gone beyond the simple sporting sphere in his native country, where there is already talk of awarding him a post of ambassador. In case of victory, Jabeur could still reach another dimension this Saturday. “I hope she will find a solution to revive Rybakina’s first balls, it’s one of the keys to the match”, analyzes Nabil Mlika, optimistic but cautious.

What memory do you keep of your first meeting with the very young Ons Jabeur?

The first time she came to the Hammam Sousse club, she wanted to start training right away. She was hitting the ball very hard against the wall, much harder than girls her age, to show how good she was.

When did you tell yourself that she was above the rest?

When she started competing with the national tournaments in chicks (9 and 10 years old category), she was in first year, and played against girls her age or a year older. She was stronger than those of the same age and there were only two in the top category who could stop her. I thought then that she could have a bright future. But as brilliant as that, we couldn’t know.

After her victorious final of Roland-Garros juniors in 2011, against the Puerto Rican Mónica Puig.
After her victorious final of Roland-Garros juniors in 2011, against the Puerto Rican Mónica Puig. – Jacques Demarthon / AFP

Many very young players or very gifted players do not break through…

Yes. But two years later, she started to play international tournaments, Arab championships for example, and she won easily. I started to believe it. She did some competitions in Europe, and it wasn’t bad. From time to time her mother would ask me if I thought she would ever make it. I told him that Ons did a lot of things that others didn’t. But again, from there to say that she would get to where she is…

A little later, at Roland-Garros, she started strong (defeat in the junior singles final in 2010 against the Ukrainian Elena Svitolina, then victory the following year against the Puerto Rican Monica Puig)

What was his style of play?

He was not classic. Ons didn’t like the long exchanges that girls often make, until one of them made the mistake. She varied the situations, seeking to outflank the opponent, to change pace and depth of the ball. This is what she still does today, but with even more speed and rigor.

When she speaks, she often talks about her country. Can we say that she is the dream ambassador?

I don’t think Tunisia has been as well known in the world as it has been for the past two years. Wherever she goes, Ons sparkles, she lights up the image of our country. We call her the ambassador of happiness, or the minister of happiness, because she brings a lot.

Does his notoriety go beyond the world of tennis?

Yes. There are people who have no idea how tennis works, how points are counted, for example. But they ask when she plays that they put the channel on which her match is broadcast. In the clubs, we also receive many more young people and children who come to register thanks to Ons.

In the semi-finals, the image of her hug with her friend Tatjana Maria, whom she had just beaten, then her kind words for the German made an impression…

He is a very cheerful person, who likes to have fun, to be everyone’s friend. She has a very positive character, which makes those who know her fall in love with her. She is always friendly and she loves children very much.

Have you kept in touch with her?

With her job, she doesn’t have much time but we usually see each other once a year. We also contact each other by phone. She is grateful. His parents live in Hammam Sousse, not far from the tennis club where I train. When she is resting, in November-December, she stays here for a few weeks. She comes to do her preparation here or in Monastir, that’s where we have the chance to meet.

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