By Martyn Herman
LONDON (Reuters) – When Ons Jabeur takes on twice Wimbledon champion Petra Kvitova in the Wimbledon first round next week she will not just be playing for herself, she will fly the flag for Africa.
The 24-year-old Tunisian is the only player from the continent in the women’s draw and only the second Arabic woman ever to crack the top 100 in the WTA rankings.
She does have some company with fellow Tunis resident Malek Jaziri having scraped into the men’s draw while South African Kevin Anderson, last year’s runner-up, is the fourth seed.
The WTA has grown its presence rapidly in Asia, a once under-represented region for a sport dominated by Europe and north America, but Africa has largely been left behind.
Jabeur reached a career-high 56 in January, surpassing the 75th spot the previous highest-ranked Arab woman Selima Sfar achieved in 2001, but it would not have made many headlines in the north African country where soccer rules.
“I’m trying to give the example for Arabic girls and African girls. It’s kind of tough because we don’t have much experience in playing tennis,” Jabeur told Reuters in an interview.
“For me I’m happy to be an example for the young kids. It’s very tough to be a pro when you come from Tunisia, but I’m trying to give the message that if I can do it they can do it.
“I can say that from my country there is a lot of talent and I hope that I can give my experiences to others.”
SMILE ON COURT
Jabeur, whose favourite growing up was Andy Roddick because “he was good looking and funny” has a tenacious game suited to grass and wears a smile on the tennis court.
“When I smile I play my best tennis,” she said.
Earlier this week she bamboozled British number one and former Wimbledon semi-finalist Johanna Konta at the Eastbourne tournament on her way to the semi-finals where she had to withdraw with an ankle injury before playing Angelique Kerber.
Considering there are no grass courts in Tunisia and she once won the French Open junior title on clay, it is perhaps surprising she enjoys the lawns, although she says her varied game allows her to be creative.
“The only grass in Tunis is in the football stadium,” she joked. “But I love it, it gives me chances with my slice and drop shots and my ball goes very good and smooth with grass.”
A confessed lover of strawberries and cream she won her first match at Wimbledon last year before losing a tight three-setter to Katerina Siniakova.
“I was always at Roehampton trying in quallies and the first time I actually got to Wimbledon (in 2017) I felt like I had really earned it. I was in the locker room thinking what an amazing place this is.”
Jabeur, who last year became the first Arab to reach a WTA final at the Kremlin Cup, hopes one day to start an academy for young Tunisians with a dream to play tennis.
“There were many difficulties, the structure is bad and we don’t have the knowledge, but thank God I had a small talent and had the right people to show me the path,” she said.
“I remember when I was a kid and I said I wanted to win the French Open when I grow up, people just laughed. I hope children can watch me and think it’s possible.”
(Reporting by Martyn Herman; editing by Clare Lovell)