BY PIERRE LAMARCHE
Ons Jabeur accomplished a milestone on Saturday, May 7th, winning The Mutua Madrid Open, a WTA 1000 event. Besides her winning purse of €1,041,570 Euros, she became the first African and Arab player to win an event of this level.
She reached two junior major girls’ singles finals at the French Open in 2010 and 2011, winning the latter. She was the first Arab player to win a junior Grand Slam singles title since Ismail El Shafei won the Wimbledon boys’ title in 1964.
After nearly a decade of playing primarily at the ITF level, beginning in 2017, Jabeur started competing more regularly beginning in 2017 on the WTA Tour. In 2019, she won the Arab Woman of the Year Award. At the 2020 Australian Open, Jabeur became the first Arab woman to reach the quarterfinals of a major, a feat she repeated at the 2021 Wimbledon Championships. She won her first WTA title at the 2021 Birmingham Classic, becoming the first Arab woman to win a WTA Tour title. Her Canadian connection is her coach Issam Jellali.
The Jellali brothers:
Issam, Walid and Aref were three tennis-playing brothers from Tunisia’s southern city of Sfax.
In 1996 I was fortunate to receive an offer from the Tunisian Ministry of Education to become the National Head Coach for two years following the Atlanta Olympics. I finished a wonderful eight-year experience working with Tennis Canada in different roles, unfortunately, all things come to pass, and it was time for me to move on.
Depression followed, and opportunities arose in Tunisia, Hong Kong and Norway. The sun from Tunisia, the French background, and the Arab and Muslim component all appealed to me like a new beginning, so in September of 1996, my family moved to Tunis.
My first practice in Tunis was the beginning of my rebirth. Three brothers, Walid, the superstar; Aref, the older mature brother and Issam, the young one, showed me that there was life after Canada. Over the next two years and many stories, we created a culture of success that had never been achieved by Tunisians living in Tunisia. The three brothers became an integral part of reaching more Davis Cup wins in two years than over the previous 17 years. The relationship between my family and the Jellali family was of the highest level.
Africa is a beautiful fertile ground for superstars in our sport. Unfortunately, as in other areas, the players’ potential gets lost in the politics of more significant agendas. It was time for our family to leave after a change in Tunisia’s internal government. My problem was the Jellali boys were family and deserved a chance which was not available short term in Tunisia.
Issam came first and lived with my family. All the boys were family, but Issam was like my son. Walid and Aref followed, and we were able to get Aref, with the help of Burlington’s Helen Donahoe, into a four-year US program and get his degree.
Walid and Issam followed their opportunities on the ATP Tour, and all three of them eventually became coaches. Aref returned to Canada and was taken under Bob Brett’s wing as he could outrun him and worked in the development of Bianca Andreescu and operated a successful program in Burlington. He will join Tennis Canada at the end of June to work with the new pipeline initiative. The most decorated Davis Cup player for his country, Walid works with some of Tunisia’s best players, including Malek Jaziri. He is now the Tunisian Davis Cup captain and shows excellent qualities. Issam became part of Ons’ team with her husband, Karim Kamoun. The former fencer also serves as her fitness coach.
The three of them have been working together for the last few years, and the fairy tale story continues. Gentlemen, Walid, Aref, Issam, you make us proud.
See you at the National Bank Open in Toronto in August.