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One Shot at a Time

Tennis fans will recognise the name Ons Jabeur. Born in a small town on the north-east Tunisian coast, she’s the highest-ranked African and Arab tennis player in history. In 2022 she became the first Arab woman to contest a major singles final, and she’s reached three of the last five, including two at Wimbledon.

It’s just that she keeps losing them.

It’s not unique for great players to walk an uneven path to success. Britain’s Andy Murray lost his first four Grand Slam singles finals, but he lost them to Roger Federer and Novak Djokovic, both at their peak, and Murray was the underdog each time. In this year’s Wimbledon final, Jabeur’s opponent was unseeded and ranked 42 in the world. Before the match, some commentators remarked that the title was hers on a plate. True, but unhelpful. When you have the weight of the world on your shoulders, the contents of your plate can seem awfully heavy.

Approximately 300 million women live in the MENA – Middle East and North Africa – region. The African continent as a whole is home to almost three quarters of a billion women. While there are many shining examples of achievement and leadership among them, equality of opportunity is still a speck on the horizon. In many African regions, women are forbidden to travel beyond their villages, and support for women in professional sport is often non-existent. When England’s Lionesses won Euro 2022 they were cheered and admired by fans in Wales, Ireland and Scotland as well as England, and UK broadcasters and sponsors are finally waking up to the merits of the women’s game. In Africa, despite the talent and accomplishment of players such as Asishat Oshoala of Nigeria and Evelyn Badu of Ghana, who are taking European club football by storm, the game has no infrastructure and little funding. This generation of African women still have to fight tooth and nail for their opportunities, and where possible leave a legacy for others. Asishat Oshoala is, admirably, doing just that. She’s started her own academy in Lagos providing football and life skills coaching for disadvantaged Nigerian girls. She’s a role model for young women everywhere, and her CV makes impressive reading. Standout spells with Liverpool, Arsenal and Barcelona have won her multiple league, cup and Champions League titles as well as a string of individual honours. She has one crucial advantage over Ons Jabeur, though. Every time she steps onto the field she has ten team-mates standing alongside her. When Jabeur walked out onto Wimbledon’s Centre Court to play Markéta Vondroušová in this year’s singles final, she was alone. And she looked it.

It’s impossible for most of us to imagine how it feels to carry the hopes of a continent on our shoulders. Most elite sportswomen and men carry the hopes of their families and friends, and that’s surely enough of a burden. For some, though, the load is heavier. In the eyes of his seven million compatriots, Novak Djokovic is Serbia. When he was born, the country didn’t exist as an independent state. He grew up in poverty, in the shadow of the brutal Yugoslavian war. The pride and fury Djokovic summons on court was hard-earned, and it’s no coincidence that his rise to world number one was sparked by Serbia’s Davis Cup win in 2010. Up until then Djokovic had been regarded as a gifted but slightly flaky competitor, retiring from big matches with minor injuries and plateauing at number three in the world rankings behind serial winners Federer and Nadal. In the 2010 Davis Cup, though, he was unstoppable, dragging his country over the line in match after match and then powering to two crucial singles wins in the December final against France to deliver a 3-2 win in front of an ecstatic home crowd in Belgrade. It was Serbia’s first major sporting triumph since independence, and the win added the final piece in the jigsaw for Djokovic, putting the iron in his soul. One month later he won the Australian Open, pulverising everyone in his path. From the Davis Cup final onwards, he didn’t lose a match for seven months, and he would add Wimbledon and US Open titles that summer along with the number one ranking. He now has 23 Grand Slam titles to his name and stands alone among male players.

You don’t have to agree with Djokovic’s views on politics or vaccination to admire his resilience, and he offers an object lesson to Ons Jabeur and everyone else in how to cope with expectations and deal with setbacks. Losing this year’s Wimbledon final to Carlos Alcaraz wounded him, but he’ll surely come back fighting. No player in the Open era has won more major tournaments from positions of adversity. When facing match points or break points in the fifth sets of finals and semi-finals, he’s proved his capacity to do what so many players fail to do, and let his mistakes go.

A 2021 study by David Harris, Samuel Vine, Michael Eysenck and Mark Wilson, “Psychological pressure and compounded errors during elite-level tennis” analysed over 650,000 points played in every men’s and women’s singles match at grand slams tournaments between 2016 to 2019. On each point they asked what level of pressure players were under and how they responded. Not surprisingly they found that at crucial moments in a match, unforced errors became far more common. They also found that when a player made one unforced error, the chances of them immediately making another rose significantly. The study suggests that mistakes and negative self-talk set players on a slippery slope that it’s hard to recover from.

The antidote?

Own your mistakes, forgive yourself for them and then forget them. When it means everything, wipe the slate clean and play as if it means nothing, one shot at a time. Far easier said than done, obviously, but it is possible. Psychologists refer to it as expertise-induced amnesia. It offers a useful insight into the nature of elite performance. Lost a big point? Forget it. Let it go. Just get on with the next one. Trust the process, trust your own ability and play one shot at a time. More often that not you’ll find that’s good enough, because most people can’t do it.

Ons Jabeur lost the 2023 Wimbledon final in straight sets, playing with arms and feet of lead. The match started promisingly when she broke her opponent’s first service game, and she held commanding positions in both sets, but in each of them it only took one mistake to start a chain of netted ground strokes, missed overheads and approach shots that were too short or too long. She lost because she couldn’t do what Djokovic has done 23 times in Grand Slam finals; exist in the moment. She couldn’t forget what she was playing for. And she couldn’t forget who she was playing for, the millions who cherish role models like her and desperately want them to win.

Sara Madi understands the value of positive role models for African and Arab women better than most. Since arriving in Wales from her native Lebanon, Sara has carved out an impressive niche as a volunteer Project Manager with Swansea’s African Community Centre and now as a Director of the People’s Library. Sara has been a leading figure in the Women Breaking Barriers initiative, raising awareness of the factors that can hold women back from academic and career success, and of the support that can help them flourish. Sara has become a role model for women of all nationalities and backgrounds, and in Ons Jabeur she recognises and empathises with a fellow pioneer.

“The first thing I must say about Ons Jabeur is that even if she never hits another ball, she has already inspired millions of women and deserves to be celebrated as a success. I must also say that her efforts to break through her own personal barrier and win a major tournament are a reminder of just how daunting it can be to carry the hopes of so many people. When I manage projects, organise events, and particularly when I stand up to speak I want to honour my family, who have worked so hard to give me opportunities. I feel a responsibility to the people I love and it inspires me, focuses me and drives me to do better. It’s a very different challenge to draw inspiration from vast numbers of well-wishers spanning an entire continent and channel it into elite performance, but I hope Ons Jabeur finds a way to do it.”

In the key moments, Jabeur needs to find a way either to draw strength from the support and expectation of her fans, or put it out of her mind completely. In this year’s Wimbledon final she did neither, the expectation weighed her down, and the inability to bear that weight meant she couldn’t forget her mistakes. Each miss made her arms and legs a little heavier. By the final game, lost to love, she could barely move.

Next year’s Wimbledon will be held a month before Ons Jabeur’s 30th birthday. Not exactly old, but in tennis terms it’s an age at which, if you haven’t won your first Grand Slam, history tells us you probably won’t win one at all. Jabeur is hugely popular on the tennis circuit and it’s not an exaggeration to say most of the world will be rooting for her if she makes another major final. That will only add to the pressure, of course, but if she can find a way to cope with it, play her natural game and live in the moment, maybe her day will come.

Just take it one shot at a time, Ons. One shot at a time.


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