Few professional athletes are likeable any more.
They can be glamorous or inspiring or aspirational or sometimes even admirable. But as money and the marketing-industrial complex move them further away from real life, it gets harder to believe they are regular people – a requirement for likeable.
Maybe this is why people react so viscerally to Ons Jabeur. You watch and listen to the Tunisian tennis star and you think, ‘I like her.’
How likeable? After Jabeur had beaten Ajla Tomljanovic in their quarter-final match at the U.S. Open here, the Australian burst into a big smile. Sure, she’d just lost a chance at glory and at least US$250,000, but, hey, now she had a chance to talk to Ons Jabeur for a few seconds.
The pair embraced at the net like one had just shown up at the other’s house for Thanksgiving dinner. Then Tomljanovic went off into a corridor to cry.
Jabeur always seems happy, but she never simpers. She’s cheeky, but never cutting. She talks straight, without apparent calculation. She doesn’t rush over to her bag to put on the watch from her sponsor immediately after every win, which also helps. But a few other pros are like this, too, and their secret sauce just doesn’t hit you the same way.
There’s something about Jabeur that is indefinably bright at a time when athletes are celebrated for intermittent gloom.
“[Jabeur] transcends tennis … because she’s such a likeable character,” former Slam champion (and likeable-enough pro) Mats Wilander said after her run to the Wimbledon final.
“I tell myself I chose to do this,” Jabeur told the Guardian this year. “So I don’t see it as a burden. I see it as a great pleasure and great responsibility.”
In an era in which the in-thing is going on and on about how hard pro sports is on pro athletes, that qualifies as a radical statement. Doing what you chose to do, getting rich for doing it and seeing that as a lucky break? Wild.
These days, a tennis player is only as saleable as their back story. Best if it’s up by your bootstraps, but being uniquely prodigious will also work.
Jabeur is neither. She comes from an unlikely tennis locale, but it’s not like she learned the game in a parking lot. She practised on local hotel courts until she was talent-scouted.
And it’s taken her a while to get to the top. Aged 28, she is only now making an impression on the very highest levels of the women’s game.
On Thursday, she’ll face the hottest player here, Caroline Garcia, in the Open semis. She’s a win away from her second Grand Slam final in a row.
Jabeur isn’t physically imposing or possessed of an elite weapon. Her favoured stroke is the drop shot – which is the sort of shot the rest of us think we could manage (though we can’t).
None of this makes her beguiling or superhuman – which, if you’re a pro, is a great start on being likeable. Regular is good. It makes you seem like a harder worker than everyone else.
Most important, people who know Jabeur feel strongly about her.
At home in Tunisia, they call her the Minister of Happiness, which is pretty unequivocal. You don’t call someone that unless they are that way. If she was the Minister of Total Victory or the Minister of Jumping the Line at the Cheesecake Factory, you’d have a different impression.
Her colleagues gush about Jabeur as though the WTA’s real competition is being her best friend. When she played Tatjana Maria in the Wimbledon semi-final, the entire pre- and post-match conversation was about who would hold their next family get-together.
“She has to make me a barbecue for all the running she made me do on the court,” Jabeur said afterward, while the crowd sighed.
This kind of thing may not be as exciting as watching Nick Kyrgios turning his racquet into toothpicks, but it is a lot more likeable.
In all of her public utterances, Jabeur has a way of sounding like your neighbour down the street you don’t know all that well, but really enjoy running into. The sort of person you just know that if you asked her for a favour, she’d say ‘Sure’. The world is running low on that sort of person these days. Jabeur seems like one of those people, only she’s world famous.
Sports enjoys this sort of thing, as long as not too many people want to try it. They have a word for a league in which everyone is kind to each other and gets along really well: bankrupt.
Conflict is inherent in sport, but needs to be dramatized in order to become profitable. Unlike all other workers, pro athletes are conditioned to be childish in their public emotions. Who else screams as loud as they can at work when they get something wrong?
It’s easier to sell content that’s edgy, politically fashionable or nasty. Nothing sells like nasty. Even if we don’t know the two people involved, we’ll all show up for the fight in the yard after school.
This is another reason why Jabeur is an outlier. What she does takes real effort – effort that is pulling her away from the core mission of winning at tennis.
Unlike her regular job, she doesn’t get days off from being nice. A great player can lose a match and still be great. A likeable person doesn’t get to be a brat one day and go back to being likeable the next. It’s full-time work, and all it takes is one catty comment from one anonymous insider to ruin it all.
Which makes Jabeur even more remarkable. She isn’t getting anything out of this, but she does it anyway. That’s the opposite of what the professional entertainment business is about.
Among all the likeable things about Jabeur, that may be the most likeable of all. Every athlete says they do it because they love it. Jabeur loves it because she does it. Well-adjusted regular people everywhere know that’s a prerequisite to making it through life.