The Minister of Happiness

The Minister of Happiness

The Power of Ons Jabeur
Revolutionary Play from the Minister of Happiness

A few years ago I read a personal essay that, since then, has stuck with me. It seems once every few weeks I’ll be reminded of this memorable missive.

It was a brief piece – 952 words – published on a little-known website, with a notable title that has proved indelible, Living as a Revolutionary Act. What an intriguing title. Catchy. Thought-provoking. Because I wear my thoughts and emotions for all to see, I’m sure I slightly tilted my head and reread the title with an eyebrow-furrowing squint. The title did its job and I clicked.

The piece was authored by a twenty-something American/Hong Konger — Leo Ji. Ji was born in the late 90s in the midst of the Handover of Hong Kong. His life has occupied a drastically different world than that of his parents. The essay was written in response to the 2019-2020 extradition, sedition, and protest laws thrust upon Hong Kongers from Beijing. While the real-time erasure of “one country, two systems” is cause for concern, investigation, and scrutiny, that’s a dive deeper than the capacity of this newsletter.

What sticks with me is Ji’s ability to beautifully split indignance and poignance. It’s most on display in his retelling of childhood experiences which happen to double as the title’s origin. It’s important to note that Leo Ji has an older sister… For multiple generations, siblings in China were either fantasy or an anathema, depending on your perspective.* At the Hong Kong-China border, and into the streets of Shenzen, Ji recounts his mother warily referring to the two as friends or cousins.

“I was not illegal, but I might as well have been; what child in urban China had ever heard of a sibling before? A second child in China has no presumption of innocence, even today.”
This is Living as a Revolutionary Act.
The idea behind the title is a translatable one.

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Ons Jabeur is playing as a revolutionary act.

The Tunisian tennis star is currently the fifth-ranked player in the world, and she ranked as high as #2 just a few weeks ago. The 26-year-old is at the peak of her career. Only Iga Swiatek has had a definitively better 2022 than Jabeur. This year, Ons has two WTA titles to her name and would have won a Wimbledon championship if it weren’t for an unbelievable comeback from the Kazakhstani Elena Rybakina.

Jabeur is quiet, with a reserved friendliness, off of the court. But a contrasting enthusiasm emerges when she has a racquet in hand. Her style is best described as excitingly unpredictable. Jabeur plays with a zealous fervor that’s contagious – play in the truest sense of the word. The crowd, the announcers, and anyone who might be watching can’t help but lean forward and watch her performance from the edge of their seat. Her play is an expression of carefree ambition – lobs, big serves, returns rifled down the line, and her signature baseline dropshot that would make Novak Djokovic blush.

It’s a laughably extraordinary shot… from the baseline. The ball barely slips over the top of the net and immediately dies on impact with the grass/clay/cement. It’s the kind of shot that causes an opponent to start asking existential questions in the middle of a match; it seems to induce a sort of confusion and frustration that can only make one feel less than adequate. Beautiful.

That should be enough. Jabeur should simply be able to play amazing tennis and be appreciated for exactly that. She should be able to cause objects to move in ways that seemingly defy physics and the conversation would just revolve around whose jaw dropped the farthest and fastest.

Fair or unfair, wanted or unwanted, Ons Jabeur is a symbol and spokeswoman. She can’t play a match without her background and responsibility being mentioned. The responsibility to be both an example for, and an expression of, Muslim and Arab women. Jabeur is a demographic Venn Diagram: a woman, Tunisian, Muslim, Arab, African. Whatever she accomplishes in the tennis world, she is first for anyone in those categories. My hope is that we don’t reduce her to a statistic or a piece of trivia.

Thankfully, Jabeur has a level of awareness that may only be matched by her talent with a racquet. She knows her reach stretches well beyond the white lines of the court.

Ons understands the sphere she occupies, “I want to go bigger, inspire many more generation(s),” Jabeur told Sports Illustrated. “Tunisia is connected to the Arab world, is connected to the African continent. … I want to see more players from my country, from the Middle East, from Africa.” She realizes that any journey is easier with a path to follow, while also understanding there is an inherent added weight in trailblazing, “I am happy that curiosity about tennis in Africa is growing. Sometimes you need someone to show you the path,” Jabeur said. “When I was young … I struggled and I didn’t believe in myself, because I didn’t see many Tunisians before me. I had to say to myself, O.K., it’s a small country. It’s Africa, but we are human beings, we are capable.” Her debonair style of play and genuine nature when interviewed has brought on a new nickname (and role) in her home country, “Minister of Happiness”.

Additional happiness couldn’t hurt in Tunisia, a nation currently in civic and economic disarray. Lifted into democracy during the Arab Spring, Tunisia became a shining example of pluralism in the Middle East. Organized labor, free elections, an increase of independent media outlets, and Nobel Peace Prizes followed. It was a movement to inspire others. Though ultimately, it was one of the only nations to experience lasting change brought about by the Arab Spring. That is, until recently – over the past twelve months Tunisia has experienced a democratic backslide. This week seems to mark the final stages of a campaign to “purify the country” by consolidating power under President Kais Saied. Saied already dissolved the 2014 constitution, froze parliament, purged judges, and has been ruling by emergency decree for almost a year. Ironically, a late July referendum is expected to vote Tunisia out of a democracy and back toward pre-revolution strongman rule.

The protests and uncertainty currently defining her nation have only raised Ons Jabeur’s profile as a citizen. She’s not an overt activist, but there is power in her play. Remember, this is a Middle Eastern, African, Muslim woman dominating a sport all around the globe. She is a beacon for all to look toward, especially those from her homeland, “[There are] so many Arab people watching me and supporting me.… I don’t want the journey to stop here. Hopefully, whoever is watching — and I hope so many of the young generation is watching — they will be inspired and I can be playing with a lot of players [from Tunisia] next to me.”

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Ons Jabeur is worth the match reminder on your calendar. She is certainly worth an exhilarating ten minutes of YouTube highlights. She is most definitely worth even more than the symbol she has become. She’s greater than just a tennis player and more substantial than the answer to some trivia question. We can appreciate her for who she is, how she plays, and her ability to transcend limitations. She is a revolutionary act.

Like always, don’t forget to jump on to the TennisPAL app to stay up to date on tennis news, find groups of friends to play with, and get a virtual coach to help with your tennis game.

*From 1980-2016 China operated under a “one-child” policy. This was part of a larger population-planning initiative following the Cultural Revolution and famine-inducing Great Leap Forward. It was a policy attempting to address fears of overpopulation that, in actuality, led to increasing patriarchal attitudes, cultural devaluing of women, and societal skepticism of siblings – “A second child in China has no presumption of innocence, even today.”

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