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At the Tunis Tennis Club (TCT), Zeineb, Mariem, Rahma and Amira exchange balls as a warm-up, under the watchful eye of the technical director, Assia Halo, a former Algerian champion. These young girls aged 10 to 17 embody the hopes of the club in the Alain-Savary district, one of the best in Tunisia. “We work on technique, of course, but also on the mind. They are young, they need to gain self-confidence,” insists the trainer.
Amira, 16, started the sport at the age of 6, pushed by her parents. She admired the Russian player Maria Sharapova, then she became a fan of Ons Jabeur: the 27-year-old Tunisian, sixth in the world ranking, walked on the clay courts of the TCT many times, notably during the Nana Trophy, an international tournament of women’s tennis. “Her drop shots, her style of play, her humor, I like everything about her”, lists, dreamy, Amira. At his side, Zeineb, Mariem and Rahma agree.
For the past five years, the dazzling career of the champion has thrilled Tunisia. What does his elimination in the first round of Roland-Garros on Sunday May 22 matter? The first Arab player to win a WTA tournament with a victory in Madrid on May 7, she was dubbed the “minister of joy” by her supporters in a country where a gloomy political and economic climate prevails.
Nearly 30,000 licensees
“In a few years, when we only talked about football in the café, tennis has made its way into the conversations thanks to Ons », testifies Haythem Abidi, coach at Gazelec Sport in Tunis. It is in this club that trains Feryel Ben Hassen, 17, who appears to be one of the most serious runners-up of Ons Jabeur, with a good ranking among juniors at world level. She also says to herself “very motivated by the example of Ons, his mental strength and his tenacity”. At TCT, 23-year-old Chiraz Bechri is also coming on strong, despite injuries that have slowed a promising start to his career. “Ons is an inspiration to her: she too suffered injuries and hard knocks and she was able to get up again”, comments his coach, Chokri Ben Amor.
Nabil Mlika, former coach of Ons Jabeur in the Hammam Sousse club (east), says he uses his former protege as a ” reference ” for the children he trains. “When I want to explain a game technique or a gesture to them, as soon as I mention Ons, I have their full attention”, he jokes. At Gazelec Sport, Haythem Abidi is delighted with the multiplication of the number of players who reach a competitive stage between 10 and 14 years old. “Three years ago, we had rosters of 30 players, today we reach 128 in national tournaments”he explains.
The Tunisian Tennis Federation (FTT) confirms that the number of practitioners has tripled in recent years. The country has nearly 30,000 licensees and around fifty clubs, compared to 30 five years earlier. This momentum was driven by the president of the FTT, Salma Mouelhi Guizani, in office since 2013. The former player imposed parity in the direction of the federation and at club level. “I wanted to democratize and feminize this sport”, confirms the one which has also strengthened the national tournaments – nearly 35 per year – in order to allow players to enter the professional circuits.
A WTA tournament in Monastir
Today, the number of women and men is balanced, whereas twenty years earlier, tennis was a rather masculine sport in Tunisia. “I remember that we trained a lot with the boys because there were not enough of them”, explains Mounira Bey, coach for young girls in Djerba (southeast). Nabil Mlika also remembers playing Ons Jabeur in men’s tournaments: “At 11, she was already beating girls older than her,” he says.
The challenge for the federation is now to improve infrastructure, as the country has neither indoor pitches nor grass surfaces. “Today, the dynamic must win over the State so that sport at a competitive level is a priority for the development of our young people”, insists Salma Mouelhi Guizani. Because without the support of the authorities, the back of the decor for the seeds of champions is not very rosy. “We have a lot of potential, but the difficulty remains to find sponsors”, reports Slim Abassi, the main coach of the young players of the TCT. Ons Jabeur also suffered from it in its infancy. Today, posters with his effigy of a Tunisian telecom operator are visible throughout the territory.
Assia Halo hopes that the notoriety of the tenniswoman will attract new sponsors to young talents. “As soon as the players come of age, you have to move on to another stage, have a private coach, a physical trainer, etc. It costs about 5,000 dinars per month [plus de 1 500 euros], which is very heavy to assume for a Tunisian family”, she explains. In Hammam Sousse, Nabil Mlika remains confident: “In recent years, we have had a lot of parents registering their children and companies taking a keen interest in the issue of sponsorship, whereas this was not the case three or four years ago. »
The Ons Jabeur effect continues to be emulated. Riding on its success, the FTT was able to obtain the organization of a WTA tournament in Monastir in October.