Sports, like politics, is based on binary win-lose calculations. Games and elections are summarized in sports and front pages by W and L. Who won? Who lost? The excluded middle, or more conventionally consensus, cooperation or compromise, has gone the way of black-and-white television and Sony Walkmans. In our current polarization, we only want to know who’s up, and who are the winners. Tradition now has it to go to Disney World to celebrate whatever victory one has accomplished. Prepare the downtown ticker-tape parade, let the loudspeakers blast “We Are The Champions,” winning and celebrating are today’s accepted symbols of success.
But at the 2022 Wimbledon tennis championships on the grass courts of the All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club, Church Road, London, a young Tunisian woman gave a demonstration that deserves to be highlighted, more so even than the presence of the former champions who were re-united on the fabled Centre Court during its 100th anniversary celebration. Ons Jabeur gave an example of generosity that showed how win-win can be possible even in the most competitive of situations.
To set the stage: Wimbledon is The major tennis tournament of the year. Its uniqueness and prestige – it is the only one of the four Grand Slam tournaments on grass, the only tournament requiring the players to wear white, the only Grand Slam event that has not changed venue – make it the tournament players’ dream of winning. Just playing on Centre Court is the fantasy of every club player. Winning the Championship is beyond Nirvana. Victors have been known to celebrate by eating grass from the Centre Court. (Full disclosure: I have prepared my winning speech every year for over 60 years, and I have never been invited to play there. Far from it. A manipulated picture of me victoriously kissing the winner’s trophy hangs over my bed.)
Ons Jabeur is a most unusual woman. She is the first successful tennis player from Tunisia; the first highly ranked African or Arab woman. She is also genuinely liked and respected by the other players, not an easy feat in such a competitive, individualistic sport. She has been called the Tunisian “Minister of Happiness” by her government. And she is very determined. “I am on a mission to win Wimbledon and to be number one next year,” she said. “When I have an idea in my head, I will persevere until I reach my goal.”
The popular 27-year-old Tunisian is close friends with Tatjana Maria, a German player. The two women faced each other in this year’s Wimbledon semi-finals. Off the court, they frequently socialize; “I love Tatjana so much, and her family is really amazing,” Jabeur said before their match. “She’s my barbecue buddy, so it’s going to be tough to play her obviously.”
Jabeur, the higher ranked, won the match 6-2, 3-6, 6-1. There were big hugs at the net after the last point. Then Maria started walking away to allow Jabeur her moment to share the spotlight with the fans. That’s how matches usually end. The loser walks back to her chair while the victor stays on the court waving to the applauding crowd. Victorious players bathe in the moment. Some blow kisses to each of the four corners of the stadium. It is the moment for the victor to savor the crowd’s adulation; the loser is forgotten except for polite applause as she leaves the court.
Jabeur did not forget the loser, her close friend. As Maria was walking back to her chair, Jabeur grabbed her by the wrist and forced her to stay on the court with her. The crowd cheered for both players, “I definitely wanted to share the moment with her at the end there,” Jabeur said. “She’s such an inspiration for so many players including me,” Jabeur added. Maria gave birth to her second child in April last year. (In an interview after the match, Maria emphasized; “I am first a mother, then a player.”)
Jabeur did not win the tournament. She lost in the finals 3-6, 6-2, 6-2 to Elena Rybakina of Kazakhstan. “I feel really sad, but it’s tennis. There is only one winner,” she said while holding up the runner-up trophy. “I’m trying to inspire many generations for my country,” she pointed out, as well as inspiring young African and Arabic girls and women throughout the world.
By asking Maria to join her on the court after their semi-final match, Jabeur has been more of an inspiration than just a tennis player. Jabeur lost the finals, but her invitation to Maria will remain a special win-win moment in a world desperate for more positive examples. It was unique, a gesture that needs to be remembered as much as the list of names of the victors engraved on the Championships’ trophy.
As Jabeur said after her final defeat, “There is only one winner” in tennis. By inviting her defeated semi-final opponent and friend to stay on the court with her, she won much, much more than a simple W or L on the sports page. Ons Jabeur merits recognition as a true winner beyond the traditional binary W and L.