What does the success of Jabeur, Safi mean for their countries

No North African woman had ever entered the WTA Top 10 ranking before. Ons Jabeur from Tunisia did it in 2021. Where would Jabeur be now if she ever let that stop her? China is a nation of over a billion people, and yet it had never produced a Grand Slam men’s or women’s singles champion until Li Na won two majors in 2014, sparking a surge of interest in tennis in her country. homeland that has not stopped yet.

Venus and Serena Williams have said that it helped them to learn as children that there was once an African-American tennis champion named Althea Gibson who became No. 1 in the world. And so they said to themselves, Why not me? Nobody underestimates what they have meant to potential minority players, both nationally and globally.

Representation matters. Representation of country affairs. Billie Jean King’s oft-repeated phrase “If you can see it, you can be it” is reflected time and time again in the global reach and amazing diversity across all regions of the Hologic WTA Tour.

See what Simona Halep means to her ardent Romanian fans. Emma Raducanu has captured the British audience, especially his younger fans. Maria Sakkari has inspired her contingent of Greek fans.

There are plenty of examples. Some of the current players listed below are not the most famous athletes or winners in the sport. Some are. But they all typify what can happen when you dare to pursue the unprecedented. All of them have impacted the places where they are from, and beyond. And they all talk about wanting to actively activate their own domino effect for change, especially in their own country.

As Billie Jean King Cup qualifiers kick off on Friday and players compete for their own countries, here’s a look at what some of today’s competitors have meant for their respective regions, including recently retired Ashleigh Barty.

ONS JABEUR

Her nickname in Tunisia is “Wazeerat Al Sa’ada” or “Minister of Happiness”. They called her that even before she became the first Arab woman to win a WTA title or advance to the Wimbledon quarterfinals for the first time during her accelerated rise up the rankings in 2021, peaking at No. 7. It says a lot about Jabeur’s infectious personality and character and about the variety-packed gameplay that so many people, including many of the same players she began beating, openly cheered her on for success.

Victoria Azarenka congratulated Jabeur on his incredible shot and his stated goal of “bringing tennis to a part of the world where it is not often played.” Former World No. 1 Andy Roddick, Jabeur’s first tennis hero when she was a child, saw her in Indian Wells last October and said: “She may be the most hugged player on tour.”

Jabeur has recognized that there are many obstacles that discourage Arab women from competing in sports, and she has faced them herself. Sponsors have been slow in coming. When she was a child, there were so few tennis courts in Sousse, her hometown, that she had to practice at a local hotel. At 13, she left home for the largest city of Tunisia and at 16, she moved to Europe, again to further her career.

Jabeur won the French Open junior title that summer, but then had to wait another decade before winning her first WTA title in Birmingham, England, in 2021. and Venus Williams.

Think about it: Jabeur’s best year didn’t come until he was 27. Or that later, once he arrived, Jabeur told reporters in Indian Wells, “This is just the beginning.”

ASHLEY BARTY

There are many places in the world where the treatment of indigenous peoples has a painful history. The issue resurfaces in Australia as indigenous athletes, from seven-time Grand Slam singles champion Evonne Goolagong Cawley to 2000 800m Olympic champion Cathy Freeman and Ash Barty, have risen to prominence on the world stage.

The three women knew that they carried the hopes of a nation within a nation. Barty, the daughter of an Aboriginal father and an English mother, felt that when she won her first Slam title at the French Open in 2019, when she became the first Australian woman to reach No. 1 since Goolagong Cawley, and again when she won at Wimbledon in 2021, wearing a dress with a scalloped hem as a tribute to Goolagong, who wore a similar outfit when she first won the All England Club fifty years earlier, at the age of 19.

Still, it never felt like it had come full circle until this January, when Barty won his first Australian Open title 32 years after Goolagong Cawley won his third and final championship there.

barty, who announced his retirement last month, had made sure during the fortnight to keep a focus on their shared heritage and the work that still needs to be done in the indigenous community. After a victory, Barty told the stadium crowd, “I am a proud Ngarigo woman, a very, very proud indigenous woman. I love my heritage… It’s what connects me with all of you here today.”

By this time, an article about Barty was being aired on Australian Open TV showing her traveling on a small plane to connect with some rural indigenous communities, meeting the elderly there and conducting tennis clinics for young people. “I think it’s about giving opportunities to indigenous youth,” Barty says in the piece. “I think it’s a celebration of our culture, it’s a celebration of sport. I think it’s really a special opportunity… to understand how much sport has to offer in the way of connecting people.”

It came true again when Goolagong Cawley surprised her by showing up to present her with the winner’s trophy. Barty said: “Really special. We shared some hugs for different reasons.”

MESHKATOLZAHRA SAFI & ANGELLA OKUTOYI

Safi is a Muslim tennis player from Iran who wears a full hajib even when she is competing and admits, “Sometimes the heat is hard for me, I can’t lie.” Angella Okutoyi grew up in a Catholic convent school in Kenya. The first time she and Safi met four years ago when they were 13 years old, Safi won her first junior singles match. Okutoyi won her rematch in Nairobi a year later. They teamed up there to win the doubles crown and have stayed in touch ever since.

One of the reasons Okutoyi and Safi enjoy their friendship is that they both yearn to do unprecedented things despite people telling them, “You can’t.” Both teenagers know that there has never been a great tennis champion from Kenya or Iran. Over 110 nations typically participate in the Billie Jean King Cup (formerly the Fed Cup), making it the world’s largest annual women’s sports competition, but Kenya and Iran have sent teams to qualification only a few times.

Okutoyi and Safi beat the odds and make history in Australia

But look: last year, Okutoyi won three ITF junior titles, including the 2021 African Junior Championship, and her 71st ranking took her to the junior main draw at the 2022 Australian Open in January, one of her goals. . Safi, who ranked 78ththeShe wasn’t sure she could join her friend until a venue opened up just a week before the tournament, sparking a mad rush to get her a visa and flight bookings from a tournament in India to Tehran and then on to Doha, where she took a 14-hour flight to Melbourne.

Once there, Okutoyi and Safi practiced together, ate together, soaked up everything from their first Grand Slam experience together. At half Sunday of the tournament, each of them made history.

Safi beat Australia’s Anja Nayar in straight sets to become the first Iranian boy or girl to play a match in a junior major. Okutoyi defeated Italy’s Federica Urgesi 6-4, 6-7 (5), 6-3 to become the first Kenyan girl to win one.

Congratulations poured in from everywhere: fans, government officials, Oscar-winning actress Lupita Nyong’o (“So proud!”), and King herself.

Safi told Egyptian freelancer Reem Abulleil and Ross McLean of the ITF: “I opened a new window to Iranian tennis. I am very happy to do that. … I really want to say don’t give up on your dreams because when I started my journey, everyone in Iran was saying, ‘This is impossible, playing Grand Slams is impossible. So I didn’t tell anyone about my dream anymore and kept pushing.”

Okutoyi said ITF.com, “In Kenya, most people who play tennis are not well off. Their families, like mine, don’t have much and I just want to encourage them and tell them that that situation doesn’t mean they can’t get here, and it doesn’t define them.”

The next year, Okutoyi added, “I’m going to come here to win it.”

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