Ines Ibbou: Out Of Darkness Cometh Light

WASHINGTON, May 12, 2020 (by Michael Dickens)

Over the weekend, a viral video aimed at World No. 3 Dominic Thiem (specifically) and tennis inequality (in general) elevated the profile of a struggling, Algerian 21-year-old pro, Ines Ibbou, in a manner even she could not have conceived. Not only did Ibbou receive widespread admiration from the likes of Nick Kyrgios and Venus Williams, she also received a response from Algeria’s president with the promise of immediate support.

In a sincere and well-thought out, nine-minute video narrated by Ibbou and published on social media Saturday night – an open letter directed at Thiem challenging his reluctance to donate to a Player Relief Fund, for which he has drawn much criticism – the Algiers native gave a no-holds-barred narrative that poignantly described what her tennis journey has been like, from teenager to present, and what she has endured to be able to pursue a tennis career in this North African country that is bordered by Morocco, Tunisia and Libya.

“Dear Dominic, After reading your last statement, I was wondering what would’ve been my career, and therefore my life, if I had been in your shoes,” the open letter begins. “Yes, what is it like to be Dominic Thiem? So I started picturing myself what it was like to have parents coaching tennis when I touched a tennis racquet for the first time at age six. …” 

Toiling in anonymity on the ITF pro circuit, Ibbou currently is the 620nd-ranked player in the WTA rankings, the only Algerian who currently holds a WTA ranking. She reached a career high of No. 604 last September, following a once-promising junior career in which she soared to No. 23. So far, in her modest professional career, Ibbou has earned a grand total of $27,825, according to figures on her WTA Tour website bio.

“Did you know that in Algeria, the ITF juniors are very, very rare and there is not a single ITF pro, ATP or WTA event?” Ibbou said in the video. “There’s not a single coach at the international level. There’s not even a single indoor court. If it rains for a week we practice our backhands …in the gym!”

To say Ibbou has struggled to improve her standing as a professional from a country that isn’t known for producing pro tennis players would be an understatement. After all, tennis courts and facilities are few and far between in Algeria, big-name sponsors are non-existent in her country, she has to spend out-of-pocket money to submit visa requests for travel to tournaments, and support from the Algerian tennis federation has been meager.

“I’m a lonely lady, traveling the world generally in three-legged trips, always looking for the cheapest tickets,” she said in the video.

This year, Ibbou has competed in a couple of ITF 15K events in Monastir, Tunisia, sandwiched around a qualifying draw opportunity that wound up in a 6-1, 6-3 defeat to Timea Babos at the Qatar Open. Her earnings this year? A whopping $3,135, of which $2,620 came in her losing effort in Doha. Otherwise, her last paycheck was $147 after losing in the round of 32 in Monastir in March. Her win-loss record for 2020 is a disappointing 1-3. All of her matches this year have been on hard courts.

By Sunday evening, in a phone interview with The National‘s Reem Abulleil, Ibbou said she felt for the first time ever that she has been heard. “For the first time I felt that people cared about us,” she said. “I was expecting some response from some lower-ranked players like me, but not all these people. Wow, that was very … I don’t know, I don’t have the words actually. 

“I hope this video makes its way to the ITF, the WTA and the federation. I hope they will change something about the tour, and they really think about it and try to help us players.”

Ibbou’s video immediately resonated with Algerian president Abdelmadjid Tebboune, who posted a message for Obbou on his official Facebook page: “There is no way Algeria will waste a sporting talent like Ines Ibbou, who is young and has lots to give in a specialty that is rare for Algerians to excel in. The Ministry of Youth and Sport will take care of your needs. You have my full support and I wish you success, God willing.”

After Ibbou posted her video on her Instagram account, she received a shoutout from the future Hall of Famer Venus Williams, who commented: “You are my hero.” Also, from Kyrgios, who previously had criticized Thiem for his comments, Ibbou received the following: “Respect! Keep doing you! I’m always willing to support.”

Aid for young, promising Canadian players

According to French-language Canadian newspaper La Presse, Tennis Canada and La Banque Nationale are establishing a scholarship program to support Canadian players who have been affected by the lockdown of pro tennis due to the Covid-19 pandemic. Eligibility will extend to Canadian professional players, wheelchair tennis players and juniors. The criteria are as follows: ATP/WTA players world-ranked between No. 100 and No. 750 in singles and between No. 25 and No 100 in doubles, ITF Top 100 juniors, and ITF Top 50 singles and doubles wheelchairs.

The aid will extend to 23 players, who have been deprived of earning income since March and will receive grants ranging from $10,000 to $20,000.

“National Bank has been an essential ally in our sport for 15 years now. Over the past few years, his unwavering support has helped develop many players of all ages, and the creation of this assistance program for our athletes demonstrates the dedication and passion of National Bank for tennis,” said Michael Downey, President and CEO of Tennis Canada.

“We know how much these scholarships will make a difference for those athletes who have been without income for several months, who still have to finance their training and support themselves, and who still do not know when they will be able to start practicing again the sport they love, while trying to make a living. These athletes were already struggling to make a decent living and the pandemic has only made their situation worse.”

Among the better-known of the 23 players who will earn aid include: Men’s singles No. 177 Brayden Schnur, No. 192 Peter Polansky and No. 339 Filip Peliwo; women’s singles No. 118 Leylah Annie Fernandez; and women’s doubles No. 48 Sharon Fichman.

More domestic tennis on the way

As domestic tennis exhibition events becomes the new normal during the pandemic shutdown, a Czech event is forthcoming later this month in Prague, May 26-28, that will feature Karolina Pliskova, Petra Kvitova, Barbora Strycova, Karolina Muchova and Pliskova’s twin sister Kristyna.

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Behind The Racquet – Harriet Dart

Harriet Dart‘s budding tennis career had hit a crossroads. “I was studying forensic psychology at the time,” the 146th-ranked British player recently penned in a first-person essay published in the Instagram series Behind The Racquet. She was a student at The Royal School, Hampstead. “I set goals of where I wanted to be after a year and if I didn’t move in that direction I was thinking of putting up the racquets. It gave me the option if things weren’t making me happy. After the first year of studying, it becomes more of a workload, so I had to make the choice of whether I would stick with studying or tennis.”

Dart, 23, had begun playing ITF tournaments as early as 2012, when she was a teenager. “It was my father who originally told me to study and have a backup, not to be so close-minded. It helped me play much better at the time. It may not have been the best preparation to study at 2 a.m. before matches but it took my mind off the pressure, made me feel relaxed on the court. As much as we all complain about tennis, I think everyone’s going to miss the feeling and emotions that come with being on court.”

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“I was studying forensic psychology at the time. I set goals of where I wanted to be after a year and if I didn’t move in that direction I was thinking of putting up the racquets. It gave me the option if things weren’t making me happy. After the first year of studying, it becomes more of a workload, so I had to make the choice of whether I would stick with studying or tennis. It was my father who originally told me to study and have a backup, not to be so close-minded. It helped me play much better at the time. It may not have been the best preparation to study at 2 am before matches but it took my mind off the pressure, made me feel relaxed on the court. As much as we all complain about tennis, I think everyone’s going to miss the feeling and emotions that come with being on court. It’s quite hard to replicate but it’s something that we don’t really talk about. It’s sad that girls don’t feel comfortable opening up. They feel that if they open up to one person it will get around to everyone in the WTA. A fear that if they open up even a little bit that they become exposed. I have kept a lot of moments to myself as well. One of the most difficult times for me was when I was away at a tournament and my grandfather had a stroke. It is my mum’s father and my mother was with me at the time. It was that moment when you pick up the phone and immediately know it’s bad news and who it’s about. At that moment all I wanted to do was go home, but my mother convinced me to stay and compete, as that was what my grandfather wanted for me. While playing all you have in the back of your mind is what if something gets worse. Weeks before the news I’d get so upset losing a match but after a moment like this you begin to realise it really means nothing in the grand scheme of things. As soon as I was done with the two events I went back home to see him. It was heartbreaking to see him unable to speak for himself at the time. Another side effect was paralyzation on one side of his body and really poor short-term memory loss…” 👉🏼Swipe pictures to continue reading @harriet_dart story

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