What the success of Jabeur, Osaka means to their countries

No woman from northern Africa had ever cracked the WTA’s Top 10 rankings before Ons Jabeur of Tunisia did it in 2021. Where would Jabeur be now if she’d ever let that stop her? China is a nation of more than one billion people and yet it had never produced a female or male Grand Slam singles champion until Li Na won two majors by 2014, sparking a surge of tennis interest in her homeland that still hasn’t stopped.

Venus and Serena Williams have said it helped them to know as kids that once upon a time there had been an African American tennis champion named Althea Gibson who became No.1 in the world. And so, they told themselves, Why not me? No one underestimates what they have meant to prospective minority players, both domestically and globally.  

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

Look at what Simona Halep means to her fervent Romanian fans. Emma Raducanu has captured Britain’s audience, especially her younger fans. Maria Sakkari has inspired her contingent of Greek fans. 

There are plenty of examples. Some of the current players mentioned below aren’t the most famous or winningest athletes in the sport. Some are. But they all typify what can happen when you dare to chase the unprecedented. All of them have impacted the places they’re from — and beyond. And all of them speak of wanting to actively spark their own domino effect for change, especially in their own country.

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

ONS JABEUR

Her nickname back home in Tunisia is “Wazeerat Al Sa’ada” or “Minister of Happiness.” She was called that even before she became the first Arab woman to win a WTA title or first advance to the Wimbledon quarterfinals during her rapidly accelerating climb up the rankings in 2021, peaking at No.7.  It says a lot about Jabeur’s infectious personality and character and variety-packed game that so many people – including many of the same players she began beating – were openly cheering for her to succeed.

Victoria Azarenka has complimented Jabeur for her amazing shot-making and for her stated goal of “taking tennis to a part of the world where it’s not often played.” Former World No.1 Andy Roddick, Jabeur’s first tennis hero as a child, watched her at Indian Wells last October and said, “She may be the most hugged player on tour.”

Jabeur has acknowledged there are many obstacles that discourage Arab women from competing in sports, and she’s encountered them herself. Sponsors have been slow coming. When she was a child, tennis courts were so few in her hometown of Sousse she had to practice at a local hotel. At 13, she left home for the bigger city of Tunis and at 16, she relocated to Europe, again to advance her career.

Jabeur won the French Open junior title that summer – but then had to wait another decade before she won her first WTA title in Birmingham, England in 2021. By year’s end, Jabeur also strung together notable wins over past Slam champions Garbiñe Muguruza, Bianca Andreescu and Venus Williams.

Think about that: Jabeur’s best year didn’t arrive until the age of 27. Or that then, once it did arrive, Jabeur told reporters at Indian Wells, “This is just the start.”

ASHLEIGH BARTY

There are many places in the world where the treatment of Indigenous people has a painful history. The topic re-surfaces in Australia when Indigenous athletes from seven-time Grand Slam singles champion Evonne Goolagong Cawley to 2000 Olympic 800-meter champion Cathy Freeman to Ash Barty have excelled on the world stage.

All three women knew they carried the hopes of a nation within a nation. Barty, the daughter of an Aboriginal father and 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 hit No.1 since Goolagong Cawley, and again when she won at Wimbledon in 2021, pointedly wearing a scallop-hemmed dress as a homage to Goolagong, who wore a similar outfit when she first won at the All England Club fifty years earlier, at the age of 19.

Still, it never felt as if everything had come completely full circle until this January, when Barty won her first title at the Australian Open 32 years after Goolagong Cawley won her third and last championship there.

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

By then, a feature about Barty was running on Australian Open TV that showed her traveling in a small bush plane to connect with some rural Indigenous communities, meet the elders there, and hold youth tennis clinics. “I think it’s all about giving opportunity 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 turning up to present her with the winner’s trophy. Barty said, “Really special. We shared a few hugs for a few different reasons.”

NAOMI OSAKA

Osaka included herself among the younger generation of athletes who modeled themselves after Serena and Venus Williams. Once Osaka’s Japanese mother and Haitian father relocated their family from Japan to the U.S. when Naomi was younger, her parents even pursued the same blueprint for success that the Williams Sisters followed, right down to going to some of the same tennis coaches and places in Florida where the Williams trained.

The irony in Osaka’s case was early in her career her mother feared her daughter would encounter prejudice for being bi-racial – only to find that once Naomi rose to No.1 and collected four Grand Slam titles by the age of 23, people and sponsors gravitated to her for the very same reason: She’s regarded as an appealing crossover star who can bridge cultures.

Her differences are seen as a good thing.

But Naomi had a secret. And she finally spoke up about it after withdrawing from Roland Garros last summer and revealing the psychological struggles she’s been experiencing  – a spark that ignited some vitally important, worldwide conversations about athletes and mental health. Suddenly, what previously seemed like a taboo subject became something that athletes such as Simone Biles — long celebrated as the most fearless, not just most-decorated, gymnast in history – talked unashamedly about when she withdrew from the Tokyo Olympics last summer, and cited Osaka’s example.

Many folks inside and outside sports have kept up the mental health conversations since, echoing Osaka’s contention, “It’s OK to not be OK.”

MESHKATOLZAHRA SAFI & ANGELLA OKUTOYI

Safi is a Muslim tennis player from Iran who wears a full hajib even when she’s competing and admits, “Sometimes the heat is difficult for me, I cannot lie.” Angella Okutoyi was raised in a Catholic convent school in Kenya. The first time that she and Safi met four years ago as 13-year-olds, Safi won their first junior singles match. Okutoyi won their rematch in Nairobi a year later. They teamed up there to win the doubles crown, and they’ve kept in touch ever since.

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

Okutoyi and Safi rise above the odds, create history in Australia

But look: Last year Okutoyi won three ITF junior titles, including the 2021 African Junior Championship, and her No.71 ranking got her into the juniors’ main draw at the 2022 Australian Open in January – one of her goals. Safi, who was ranked 78th, wasn’t sure she’d get to join her friend until a spot opened just a week before the tournament, sparking a mad rush to get her a visa and flight reservations from a tournament in India to Tehran and on to Doha, where she caught a 14-hour flight to Melbourne.

Once there, Okutoyi and Safi practiced together, ate together, soaked in everything about their first Grand Slam experience together. On the middle Sunday of the tournament, each of them made history.

Safi beat Australia’s Anja Nayar in straight sets to become the first Iranian girl or boy to play a match at 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 rolled in from everywhere — fans, government officials, the 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’m really happy to do that. … I just really want to say don’t give up on your dreams because when I started my journey, everybody in Iran was saying, ‘This is impossible, playing Grand Slams is impossible. So I didn’t say my dream to anyone anymore and I just kept pushing.”

Okutoyi told 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 say that situation doesn’t mean they cannot reach here, and it doesn’t define them.”

Next year, Okutoyi added, “I’m coming here to win it.”

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