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‘We called her Roger Federer’: How Ons Jabeur made her mark in Tunisia

HAMMAM SOUSSE (AFP) – Fifteen years before Tunisia’s Ons Jabeur became the first Arab or African woman to win a top-flight tennis title, her adolescent sparring partner could see she was destined for glory even if he suffered a broken arm in the process.

Omar Laabidi remembers being repeatedly beaten by a 12-year-old Jabeur, who this month surged to victory at the Madrid Open at the age of 27 – the first WTA 1000 trophy of her career.

“We used to call her Roger Federer,” he said.

Laabidi was talking at the tennis club where it all began, in the North African country’s coastal town of Hammam Sousse.

“One time during a training match she hit a drop shot that I tried so hard to return that I broke my arm,” he said.

Tunisian tennis coach Nabil Mlika teaches students at a Hammam Sousse tennis club. PHOTO: AFP

Jabeur, who hopes to win a maiden Grand Slam title at the French Open which starts in Paris tomorrow, started playing on courts belonging to local hotels.

But she soon joined the Hammam Sousse Club, which now bears a huge portrait of its most famous graduate. It was there that Nabil Mlika first trained a talented girl “determined to stand out” against both female and male peers.

But Mlika, who trained a young Jabeur for 10 years, said there was a moment where she almost quit the sport.

“She had great ball control, to the point where other coaches tried to attract her to handball,” said the 55-year-old.

“Ons thought seriously about switching sport – but decided to stick to tennis.”