Center Court crowd relish Arab stars Ons Jabeur, Mayar Sherif at Dubai Duty Free Tennis Championships
It was a special day to be an Arab sports fan on Tuesday as Egyptian Mayar Sherif and Tunisian Ons Jabeur played back-to-back matches on Center Court at the Dubai Duty Free Tennis Championships, showcasing the kind of grit and fighting spirit one has come to expect from the two pioneering women on the WTA tour.
While the pair came out with mixed results, Sherif falling to former world number three Elina Svitolina in straight sets before eighth-seeded Jabeur battled past Vera Zvonareva in three, the significance of the occasion was not lost on the buoyant Arab crowd in attendance, who witnessed a rare double-header featuring two talented women from the region competing on UAE soil.
“Mayar is a great player. I met her and her team. It’s so nice to see her here. Hopefully she will get better,” said Jabeur, who last year became the first Arab tennis player in history to be ranked inside the world’s top 10.
“I know it’s not easy to start those tournaments. I’ve been there. I played those tournaments; it was very tough to win the first rounds. I am 100 percent sure she is going to get there.”
— wta (@WTA) February 15, 2022
Jabeur, 27, has helped pave the way for players like Sherif, who is following in the Tunisian’s footsteps and breaking new ground for Egyptian women in the sport.
World No. 65 Sherif is the first woman from Egypt to be ranked in the top 100 and made her Dubai debut this week courtesy of a wildcard.
The 25-year-old from Cairo has seen Jabeur make history time and time again and is thrilled to be sharing a locker room with the affable Tunisian.
“Of course Ons is a dear friend; I’ve known her since I was 14 years old. She knows my family well, I know her well. She is a lovely personality, so anytime I want to ask her about anything, she gives me advice or offers me whatever I am seeking,” Sherif told Arabic media on Tuesday.
“Even when I told her I’d love to play doubles with her one time, she agreed right away and said she’s looking forward to it.
“It’s a very nice feeling to have this kind of support from someone else on tour, especially from an Arab player. It gives you lots of hope as well, so it’s a great feeling that Ons is around all the time.”
Jabeur was contesting her first match in over a month, having missed the Australian Open with a back injury. The world No. 10 felt rusty during her two-hour 6-2, 2-6, 7-5 win over Zvonareva on Tuesday, and admits staying healthy is her top priority heading into her second-round clash with American Jessica Pegula on Wednesday.
For Sherif, facing two-time Dubai champion Svitolina was a tough initiation, but the Egyptian is ready to confront such challenges in order to take the next steps in her career.
“I came here knowing that every player in the draw is a very tough player, from the top seed all the way to the qualifying rounds. So drawing Svitolina in the first round was not a shock for me — I knew I was going to face someone very good,” said Sherif.
The Center Court stands were full of Egyptian and Tunisian flags on Tuesday, with lots of young kids making their way from school straight to the stadium to catch a glimpse of Sherif or Jabeur.
“It’s very heartwarming to see young Egyptians that come tell me they did a school project about me, or someone sends me a portrait they drew of me as a gift. These things really move me because you know that people are following you and see you as an image that they’re looking up to,” said Sherif.
“They see me as a role model. Of course it’s a bit of pressure on my shoulders but it also gives me lots of motivation to do better and better so people can follow in my footsteps. Seeing kids asking me for photos and telling me they’re proud of me — I carry all that in my heart.”
Unlike Jabeur, who turned pro as a teenager as soon as she wrapped up her junior career, Sherif took the college tennis route, attending Pepperdine University, US, where she reached the semifinals of the NCAA Championship.
Several former college players have made waves on the professional tour, most recently UVA graduate Danielle Collins, who reached the Australian Open final last month.
It is yet another encouraging sign for Sherif, who is thrilled to see her decision to delay her pro career while she developed her game and character during her college tennis years now paying off.
“You hear from many people that going to college would kill your game, going to college would kill your chance of being a professional. But seeing now this happening more often than before, now the players see us that are playing college, and that’s the vision, is that when they finish college, that’s what they want to do,” said Sherif.
“Especially players that were playing while I was there, I see them trying. I think they see us there and they’re, like, ‘if they can do it, why not us too?’
“I think it gives a lot of motivation for the players who are competing at a high competition in college. I’m so proud to be a part of that, to be honest.”
Jabeur’s journey in Dubai continues as Sherif shifts her focus to next week’s Qatar Open in Doha, where once again the two North African women will have an opportunity to inspire an entire Arab population.