Monday, April 4, 2022

When the Minister speaks, we listen

clockwise from top: Jabeur, Keys, Badosa, Fernandez (photos by Daniel Ward)

Ons Jabeur, who is seeded fourth at the Credit One Charleston Open, joined other top players in a round table talk today with the media, and informed us that, in Tunisia, she's known as the "Minister of Happiness." So widespread is her fame that Tunisia's prime minister refers to her as " the Minister." 

The Minister of Happiness spread some of her joy today, talking with us about wanting to overcome her usual routine at a tournament. “I’m not a great tourist,” she said. “I come here every year and do nothing.” She does have a plan, though: She has always wanted to see the spots where The Notebook was filmed. “I have to make a deal with you guys—if I win the tournament, then I take the trophy and make the photos there.”

Sounds like a plan.

Jabeur, like all the other players at today's round table, talked about the difficulty of focusing on tennis during a pandemic, and at a time when there are major world crises. She also echoed something that several other players said: "Tennis is not the most important thing in the world."

Asked if she had a strategy for playing doubles with Aryna Sabalenka (the two paired spontaneously right before the tournament because Jabeur's scheduled partner could not play), the Tunisian star was quick to respond, "I hope she doesn't hit me with the ball."

2019 champion Madison Keys was candid about her struggles last year. "Tennis felt so insignificant," she said, and added that "it still feels that way sometimes." But, she said, she keeps in mind that entertainment for fans is important, and also--playing tennis is her job. 

Keys said that "just knowing how bad everything felt last year, and how overwhelmed I got" has helped her to commit to not letting herself feel that way again. She also talked about her goals, and said that--in the past--some of them were too outcome-specific, so now she thinks only about what she can control. This idea would also be expressed by several of the other players.

Someone reminded Keys about the time that she wore some virtual goggles and was able to "see" the new stadium. She said that when she arrived in Charleston and came out of the elevator, she wondered why everything looked so familiar--and then she realized that it wasn't the first time that she had seen her surroundings.

clockwise from top: Pliskova, Peguula, Bencic, Stephens (photos by Daniel Ward)

Belinda Bencic was especially philosophical. She told us that "You have to accept that--all the things that are happening--it's for a reason, and it's only going to do you good." 

Bencic also pointed out something that makes this tournament special--that the Charleston crowd goes all out to support women's tennis.

Asked if she had had the opportunity to respond to the question, "how did you do at the Olympics?" Bencic said that she had an opportunity almost immediately after her victory. She was boarding her flight out of Tokyo, and the crew noticed her Olympic bag, and asked how things had gone for her. And then she showed them her gold medal.

Jessica Pegula (who once lived in Mount Pleasant) talked a little about her job as a member of the Players' Council, and how she's glad that she can contribute to the game that way, to help start conversations about new topics and solutions. She also told us that she loves to play tennis and also enjoys practicing very much. 

Karolina Pliskova revealed that she loves to watch tennis. “Even if I lose in the tournament, I still watch.” Pliskova said that--while she sometimes learns important infornation about players that she hasn't competed against--she primarily watches for fun.

We also heard from Leylah Fernandez, who said what was the most surprising thing that I heard today--that many people had told her that “I’m not gonna make it.” She said that hearing this helped her to grow her own self-belief. (This, of course, nicely pairs with Bencic's statement about acceptance.)

Fernandez talked about the other sports in which she has participated--soccer, baseball, track and field. She said that she liked all of them, but  that it was tennis that won her heart. The U.S. Open finalist said that she can express herself better on a tennis court than anywhere else.

2016 champion Sloane Stephens spoke with us about the pandemic and its effects, reminding us that it wasn't just difficult for the players, but also for the support staffs, and for the WTA. Also, she said, it was easy to enjoy just being at home. Stephens went on to talk about the rhythms of professional tennis--the hot streaks that players get on, and then the difficulty of trying to keep those streaks going.

Her goals for the season? "To win matches and get out of my hotel room."

Paula Badosa had similar thoughts. She said that this was her first time to play in Charleston outside of the bubble, and that she's finally getting to see the city. Charleston has meaning for the Spanish player because it was here that she defeated former world number 1 Ash Barty. 

Quite a lot changed for Badosa after that, and she went from being number 70 in the world to number 3 in the world in a relatively brief period of time. That brought pressure, she said, but "It's the kind of pressure I like."

How does it feel, she was asked, to see that number 3 after your name? Badosa quickly responded, "To be honest, I wanted number 2."

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