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Interview: Ons Jabeur’s coach Issam Jellali talks tough 2023 season, missing piece of Grand Slam puzzle, and more

As Ons Jabeur burst into tears during an on-court interview at the WTA Finals in Cancun on Wednesday and announced she would be donating a portion of her prize money to Palestinian aid, countless people around the world cried with her, including members of her team.

The Tunisian tennis star made a humanitarian plea, praying for an end to the bloodshed in Gaza.

“It’s very tough seeing children, babies dying every day,” said a tearful Jabeur. “It’s heartbreaking… it’s not a political message, it’s just humanity. I want peace in this world and that’s it.”

For many years, Jabeur has been referred to as the Minister of Happiness back home in Tunisia. Perhaps now, she has also become the Minister of Peace.  

“You must not lose faith in humanity. Always an honor to coach a human before the player,” wrote Jabeur’s coach Issam Jellali on social media, in the wake of his compatriot’s emotional speech.

Jellali has been Jabeur’s coach for almost four years and has helped guide her to a series of history-making feats in the sport.

With Jellali in her corner, Jabeur became the highest-ranked African singles player in tennis history – peaking at No.2 in the world last year – and the first African or Arab woman to reach a Grand Slam final (she has made three).

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The 29-year-old, currently ranked No.7, is an icon and role model for the Arab world, Africa, and beyond, and has grown accustomed to the notion of representing something far bigger than just herself.  

“She’s very happy to represent or to talk or to be there for the Arabs, Africans, Tunisians; if you ask her to do that, she’s the first one who’s in. Even if she has to play a match, she’ll go there and then go play a match,” Jellali told Arab News in an interview on the eve of the ongoing WTA Finals.

Jellali rarely speaks to the press and prefers to keep a low-profile, travelling the world with Team Jabeur, which predominantly consists of himself, Ons, and her husband/fitness trainer Karim Kamoun.

He’s a true student of the game and a human encyclopaedia when it comes to knowledge of Jabeur’s competitors. He says he considers himself “lucky” for getting to experience this historic ride with Jabeur.

“Before I started with Ons, the idea of seeing someone from my country playing at this level, it wasn’t just a dream, it’s like someone will slap you and say ‘wake up’. You cannot imagine someone from your country, who is going to be number two in the world or getting to the top 10, getting to three Grand Slam finals, and making it two times in a row to the WTA Finals – it’s a dream,” he mused.

While 2022 was a banner year for Jabeur, in which she won a maiden WTA 1000 title and reached two major finals at Wimbledon and the US Open, 2023 was arguably her toughest season to date, plagued by injuries and setbacks. Still, she managed to qualify to the WTA Finals for a second consecutive year as one of the top eight players in the Race.

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Jellali says it’s a “miracle” they made it to the season finale in Cancun, where Jabeur lost her opener to Coco Gauff but bounced back with a convincing victory over Wimbledon champion Marketa Vondrousova in her second round-robin match on Wednesday. On Friday, she will need to defeat four-time major winner Iga Swiatek in order to advance to the semi-finals.

“Just before the US Open we didn’t even know if we can finish the season,” confessed Jellali. “For us, this tournament is like a win-win week. We are happy to be here. It was one of the toughest seasons. Most of the tournaments that she played she was not fit 100 percent. So we were not expecting to be here and that’s why it’s a miracle.”

From health issues to knee, back, ankle, calf, and wrist problems, Jabeur tackled one injury after the other throughout the season. Despite that, she still managed to reach a second Wimbledon final and lift two champion’s trophies in Charleston and Ningbo.

“I can tell you that as a coach, I only had three weeks in this full season where I was able to do what I want (in practice with Ons). She was not fit at all. It started from the preseason, so even the preseason we didn’t do it properly,” explained Jellali.

“I remember before our Berlin tournament, onsite we had a 20-minute practice only, we weren’t able to play, then we went straight to the match. Every week there was something and we had to deal with all this.”

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The team weighed their options between pulling the plug on the season in order for her to fully recover versus sticking to the schedule and managing her injuries week by week, ensuring it wasn’t causing any further damage to Jabeur.

“At this stage we know that there is a part where you need to learn how to play with the pain. Now, where she has had three consecutive seasons where she needed to play a lot of matches, which she wasn’t used to before, we’re going to get a lot of this. So we decided to continue,” said Jellali.

Besides her physical woes, the mental toll some of Jabeur’s losses took on her was perhaps even tougher to overcome. The Tunisian suffered a narrow defeat to Beatriz Haddad Maia in the French Open quarter-finals before losing a heartbreaking loss to Vondrousova in her second Wimbledon final. Jabeur looked inconsolable after that match at the All England Club and even skipped a WTA 1000 event in Canada after that to give herself time to recover emotionally and psychologically.

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After losing two major finals last year, even Jellali thought this summer’s Wimbledon was going to be Jabeur’s big moment to shine and fulfill a lifelong dream.

So what did he tell her after that gut-wrenching defeat?

“I told her, ‘We lost three finals, we cannot lose four finals’,” he said with a laugh. “No, I really told her, ‘If we didn’t get this final, that means there is something missing. We are not ready to win a Grand Slam final yet and I think it’s the best motivation to keep working and to try to improve ourselves more and more’. That’s what I told her right after the final.

“And if we think about it, it’s the reality. Even me as a coach I thought that this time is going to be the right time. We had played two previous finals and I thought that she’s ready for that. But it’s not about tennis, it’s not about rhythm, and that’s what we’re working on.”

Jellali says he “100 percent has the faith” that Jabeur will win a Grand Slam and finds it his duty to keep the whole team in a positive mindset as they pursue this historic goal together.

“It’s very simple, we are getting close, but if she didn’t get it yet, that means there is something missing, it’s obvious, it’s clear. This final made us touch the exact thing we need to get over this. So we are giving a lot of focus on that aspect,” he added.  

“Basically it’s easy to say, ‘Just be yourself’. I want to be myself but there are many things around. So we are working on all those things coming from outside the court, playing under pressure, putting herself in situations where she needs to feel the pressure and find ways to get out of that. That’s why I say this season is very important for the next ones. We believe and trust that it’s coming insha’Allah.”

There is a certain degree of pressure that naturally comes with competing at a high level in professional sport, but Jabeur also has the added burden of constantly playing for history, as she chases one unprecedented feat after another as a Tunisian, African and Arab woman.

After every win she picks up on the big stage, an interviewer asks her about being a trailblazer and what it feels like to rep an entire continent or region.

“My personal thoughts on that are that I think it’s true that these kind of things (making history) were giving her a lot of energy. Now it’s coming back against her,” said Jellali.

“Yes, it was helping, it’s good to play for everyone, it’s good to represent the Arab world, the African continent, and everything, but now it’s becoming a lot on her shoulders. Because now she needs to deal more with what’s coming on the court.

“Whatever is coming from the outside, it’s not going to be positive anymore, it’s negative. But at the same time, you can’t take all of this away just like that. There are steps.”

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Jellali, who had never coached at this top level before, feels the beauty of his journey with Team Jabeur is that they are all experiencing these big moments together for the first time. Just like Jabeur is proving to the world that a Tunisian can make it to the upper echelons of the sport, she is also showing it can be done with an all-Tunisian team, while living and training in Tunisia.

“There are more players now in Tunisia and everyone is dreaming. Because they used to see Ons go to the same school where they used to go, practicing with the same coaches, she came out from there. So it’s normal. They will say, if she did it, why can’t we do it?” he said.

As they all continue to learn together, Jellali explained how they will have a different approach to this preseason, where they will make sure Jabeur is fully fit before she gets back to training in preparation for 2024; even if it means they start later than expected.

“I think she will gain a lot from this season and I can tell you that she’s more motivated than ever,” he assures.

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