WASHINGTON, August 29, 2017 (by Michael Dickens)
Everyone who follows professional tennis closely – or even casually – knows that Rafael Nadal is currently ranked World No. 1. He’s highly recognized, much photographed and often interviewed everywhere he travels around the globe and in every tournament he competes, especially the United States Open.
Now, quickly, can you name the Arab No. 1 men’s player in the world? Hint, he’s from a country that’s located on the African continent, speaks five languages (Arabic, French, English, Spanish, Italian) fluently, has been playing professionally since 2003, and is nicknamed “Jazz.” Still need help? I thought so.
Meet Malek Jaziri of Tunisia, who is currently ranked No. 80. He’s the No. 1 Arab men’s player in the world, a distinction he carries with pride every time he walks out on the tennis court. His appearance at the ATP 500 Citi Open in Washington, D.C., earlier this month came and went with hardly any commotion. That is, unless you count Jaziri’s hitting session with mercurial bad boy of tennis Nick Kyrgios of Australia, several hours before his first-round match during the second day of the tournament, which drew a lot of curious spectator interest of all ages and raised just a few eyebrows. Everyone recognizes the 22-year-old outspoken Aussie and wants to take a selfie with him or get his autograph for their gigantic, fuzzy yellow tennis ball; not so much for the soft-spoken but friendly Jaziri.
Despite being an Olympian twice and a perennial Davis Cup member for the tiny North Africa nation of Tunisia, Jaziri walked off the practice court at the Rock Creek Tennis Center after hitting with Krygios and went straight to the players’ locker room inside Stadium Court without being recognized or bothered by any fans. And that’s something which suits the 33-year-old tour veteran just fine.
A year ago, Jaziri, who grew up in the north of Tunisia in Bizerte (the Venice of Tunisia) and now resides in the capital city of Tunis, married and the father of a playful one-year-old boy, began taking a more professional approach and attitude to his game, on and off the court. After cracking the top 60, he made some lifestyle changes, which included switching to a gluten-free diet and taking up yoga. Being intolerant to gluten meant forsaking many of his favorite foods, such as dried fruit, tomatoes, beans and almonds – all common edibles in a typical Tunisian diet. He also swore off sugar and drinking Coca-Cola, shedding a few kilos in weight. By adding yoga to his daily fitness routine, it has helped improve his breathing on court. Now, Jaziri’s body and mind are healthier – and at 181 pounds (82kg), he’s fitter, too.
On October 3, 2016, Jaziri’s personal and professional decisions began to pay dividends. On that date, he broke into the top 50 following the biggest win of his career, over then-No. 14 David Goffin of Belgium in the first round of an ATP 250 tournament in Shenzhen, China. Then, a week later, he achieved a career ranking of No. 49 after reaching the second round of the Beijing Open in Beijing, China. With his improvement on the court, off it Jaziri earned a clothing endorsement from Mizuno. Now, his kits are a tad more stylish – royal blues and bright yellows – and a lot more recognizable than ever before.
Last year’s momentum on the court carried over to 2017 as Jaziri improved his career-best ranking to No. 47 on Feb. 13, after advancing to the second round of the Open Sud de France in Montpellier, France.
Since then, Jaziri enjoyed one of his best weeks of his professional career when he won three consecutive matches in the ATP World Tour Masters 1000 at Indian Wells, California, which included a win over then-No. 36 Marcel Granollers of Spain, before he lost in the round of 16 to American Jack Sock, then ranked No. 18. The following tournament, at the ATP World Tour Masters 1000 in Miami, Florida, Jaziri won his first two matches.
Jaziri plays a refreshing style of high-risk tennis, oftentimes going after a big first serve that consistently registers 120 miles per hour or better. He isn’t afraid to attack with quick forehands, one-fisted slice backhands, and his occasional chip and charge returns hit from both wings often surprise his opponents with precision accuracy. When his game clicks, Jaziri can be a threat in any draw – and he does play up to the level of his competition. Sometimes, however, he loses his concentration when he faces lower-ranked opponents.
Tough Clay-Court Swing
Unfortunately, Jaziri’s spring hard court momentum didn’t translate well to clay and his European swing on the terre battue was a borderline disaster, both to him and for his fans. There were consecutive first-round losses on clay to Frenchmen Jeremy Chardy, in Marrakech, and Gilles Simon in Monte-Carlo; to Granollers in Barcelona, and against Gastao Elias of Portugal in Estoril, culminating in a first-round setback to South Africa’s Kevin Anderson at Roland Garros. With the losses mounting, Jaziri’s world ranking began plummeting. First, he dropped out of the top 50. Then, over a three-month period, his ranking fell into the mid-seventies.
“I played very good at the beginning of the year, then I had some tough moments. Clay court is not my best surface; hard court is my best surface,” Jaziri acknowledged recently, during a sit-down one-on-one interview in the players’ lounge at the Citi Open. “Plus, I never had easy draws as well. I played a lot of good players like Gilles Simon and Jeremy Chardy, players with confidence and experience.
“These were tough matches. It was not easy to play those guys. I was fighting as it was. But that’s tennis,” said Jaziri, with a wink and a smile.
Favourite Surface: Hard Courts
Now, Jaziri arrives for the U.S. Open – his favorite tournament – with just 650 ATP rankings points, and his No. 80 ranking is at its lowest point since April 4, 2016, when he was ranked No. 94. On Friday, Jaziri was placed in Roger Federer’s quarter in the upper half of the draw. His first-round opponent will be 23-year-old lefty Thiago Monteiro of Brazil, ranked No. 114. They play last on Court 10 on Tuesday. If he beats Monteiro, his likely second-round foe would be none other than Kyrgios.
Although Jaziri grew up playing tennis on the clay courts of Club Athlétique Bizertin (CAB) idolizing Pete Sampras, he considers hard courts – common in the U.S. but not so much in Tunisia – to be the surface he’s most comfortable playing on. So, it should come as no surprise that Jaziri plays some of his best tennis each year during the early spring hard-court swing in Indian Wells and Miami as well as during the summer in the U.S. Open Series, a group of hard-court tournaments that for him this year included stops in Atlanta, Washington and Winston-Salem, North Carolina, plus a failed attempt to qualify for the Masters 1000 in Cincinnati.
Becoming A Crowd Favourite In Washington
Twice, Jaziri has reached an ATP World Tour semifinal, in Moscow in 2012 and, again, in Winston-Salem in 2015. It was during the ATP Winston-Salem Open two years ago that Jaziri nearly upset Anderson in a matchup of the top two players from the African continent. They’ve faced each other a total of six times throughout their respective careers and Anderson currently owns a 5-1 head-to-head advantage. The Tunisian’s breakthrough moment in their rivalry came when the 6-foot-1-inch (1.85m) Jaziri beat the tall (6-foot-8-inch, 2.03m) and agile Anderson, 5-7, 6-4, 7-6 (3), in the round of 32 at last year’s Citi Open. Earlier this month, in their third meeting in the Washington tournament, it was Anderson’s moment to shine, 6-4, 6-1, under the lights of the Grandstand 2 court in front of a small but enthusiastic crowd that numbered in the hundreds. Meanwhile, inside the adjacent Stadium Court at the same time as the Jaziri-Anderson match-up, eventual champion Alexander Zverev of Germany was holding court before a much larger gathering – and winning – against Australia’s Jordan Thompson. And it’s what drew most everyone’s attention around the rock Creek Park Tennis Center grounds that evening.
While the unseeded Jaziri, then ranked 73rd, was a definite underdog against the 15th seed Anderson (who was ranked 45th) when they faced off in Washington, he became a crowd favorite as the match wore on. Jaziri kept fighting for every point until there weren’t any more points to fight for. The Tunisian could be forgiven for losing a bit of stamina after a long day the night before, when he didn’t finish his first-round win over the 351st-ranked qualifier Alessandro Bega until after midnight, due to a four-hour rain delay that pushed the starting time of his match back to 10:24 p.m., some nine hours after he finished his practice session with Kyrgios.
Jaziri broke even at the Citi Open, winning once and losing once in Washington. Since then, he’s lost three consecutive matches against a trio of young Americans – Austin Krajicek, Mitchell Krueger and Taylor Fritz – while playing in a Challenger Tour event in Aptos, California, where he was the top seed; in the qualifying draw at Cincinnati, where he was seeded seventh; and most recently, in the first round at Winston-Salem, where his match against the 19-year-old Fritz was showcased on opening night. As Jaziri gets ready to play in the U.S. Open for the fifth time, where he has never advanced past the second round, this season his losses have outnumbered his wins. Combined, his win-loss record (including both World and Challenger tour matches) is 17-24. Over the length of his 14-year pro career, Jaziri is 67-90 in World Tour matches.
Recently, I spoke to Anderson about the rivalry he’s developed with Jaziri over the years and the South African spoke fondly about his fellow African competitor. “We’ve played each other a few times. It’s funny, I played him in the first round at the French this year. We’re the only two African players right now in the top 100,” he said. “We’re good friends; we see each other. We’ve played a lot of tournaments together. I think we definitely feel, professionally, we’re representing the continent well.
“Malek’s a very crafty player; he’s been on tour for a long time (since 2003). We’ve played each other three times here just in Washington. He got the better of me last year, so I was able to get some revenge on him this year,” said Anderson.
“It’s a tough match when you play guys who serve like Kevin,” Jaziri admitted, about two hours after his second-round match against Anderson had concluded. His wife and son sat nearby in a corner of the players’ lounge, which transformed itself into a living room atmosphere for our interview. “I faced it when I won and saved eight match points against (Reilly) Opelka. I need these kinds of matches – dueling against Kevin and Opelka – to build my confidence back. I’m working hard and trying to make the most of my opportunities, and for me to have a better, positive result – and to finish the year very good.”
Jaziri’s 5-7, 7-6 (14), 6-1 first-round win over the hard-hitting Reilly Opelka at the ATP 250 BB&T Atlanta Open in July included a memorable, 30-point tie-break in which he fought off four of the eight total match points the American wild card hurled against him during the second set. It remains a peak highlight of Jaziri’s 2017 season.
Compete To The Best And Enjoy The Experience
The Tunisian’s on-court philosophy is simple: compete to the best of his ability – and enjoy the experience – while also having fun. Off the court, Jaziri finds joy in following international football and visiting museums throughout the world as he travels and competes. This year alone, he’s played in Australia, Qatar, Dubai, Canada, Great Britain, France, and the U.S., and competed at home in Tunisia in the Davis Cup.
Asked to describe his goal for the rest of this up-and-down season, Jaziri didn’t hesitate to share his answer with me. “To finish in the top 70 would be very good,” he said matter-of-factly. “It would be perfect!”
The summer hard-court season has been a transitional one for Jaziri. Recently, Christophe Fryess, who took over coaching duties from Dejan Petrovic at the start of 2017, departed Jaziri’s camp before Wimbledon. Soon, Jaziri explained, Petrovic will reunite as his primary coach.
“I have a few things I’ve been working on. Now, it’s time I think to react and have positive results,” said Jaziri. “Tennis can be up and down. It’s a most important thing to be able to react and come back in your matches.” Like he did against Opelka.
While there’s been some disappointing defeats this season – a four-set loss to the young French star Lucas Pouille in the opening round at Wimbledon after he won the first set, plus, his recent loss to Fritz after playing solidly during the opening set come to mind – Jaziri looks forward to the remainder of the season. His memorable win over Opelka and his respectable effort despite losing to Anderson in Washington, gives everyone – Jaziri, his team and his fans – hope and promise.
“Yeah, and everything I’ve been working on should start to work. I’m earning some (ATP) points. That’s good. Happy for that,” said Jaziri. “I’ve been winning some matches, one or two rounds each tournament. These are good matches for me. In Gatineau, I made the semifinals (at the Gatineau Challenger in Gatineau, Quebec, after Wimbledon). So, I’m coming back. I know if I keep continuing to come back, there will be bigger wins, making ATP 1000 draws, getting good results.”
Successful Results On The ATP Challenger Tour
Although Jaziri has never won a World Tour championship, he’s won six Challenger and nine Futures titles. Last year, he won three ATP Challenger Tour titles, in Guadalajara, LeGosier, and Istanbul. In 2011, Jaziri became the first Tunisian player to ever win a match at a Grand Slam tennis event during the Open era, which began in 1968, when he beat Thiemo De Bakker of the Netherlands in four sets at the U.S. Open. In an interview earlier this year for Al Jazeera, Jaziri said that six years after his country’s Arab Spring revolution in 2011, he’s become a better player, and he sees Tunisia in a better state. While unrest and tennis do not necessarily make good sporting partners, Jaziri admitted in that interview, “I started to play very good after the revolution. It’s unbelievable, but it’s true.” Since the revolution, Jaziri’s world ranking has improved more than 100 places.
With The Support Of His Family
Regardless of whether he wins or loses on the tennis court, at this stage of his career, there’s an upside that Jaziri has come to appreciate and that’s having his family – wife Jihene, whom he married in 2015, and son Malek Jr., who turned one in May – traveling with him this summer. Together, they make for a happy family.
“When they can travel with me, it’s nice to have them along, to be able to spend time together,” said Jaziri, flashing a wide grin as he gestured towards his wife and child. “There’s time for tennis and time for family.”
Asked to describe how difficult family separation can be during the brutally long, never-ending tennis season – especially when flying back to Tunis on short notice is not always a viable option – Jaziri is candid with his answer. “It’s not easy being apart for two to three months at a time. For both of us, it’s difficult. I’m on tour a lot to support the family and for financial stability. When my family is with me, it gives me more motivation. I’m happy to have them here with me,” he said.
Although it was approaching 10:30 p.m., and he had gone through more than an hour of post-match physiotherapy after his loss to Anderson, Jaziri welcomed the opportunity to meet with me (it was his only interview request at the Citi Open). He took great pride in introducing his family to me. Despite the late hour, little Malek was wide awake and he became intrigued by all of the attention surrounding his tennis-playing father. Sitting within earshot, he beamed a big, happy-go-lucky smile at me, and I reciprocated with a big smile and a wave for the little boy. Jihene, although amused, tried to distract her son with a toy so that her husband could finish his interview.
Soon, an ATP media representative standing off to the side nodded and the interview was over. Jaziri stood up to shake hands and thanked me for my interest. We posed together for a keepsake photograph. With few, precious days off this summer, Jaziri and his family have tried to enjoy their time together while crisscrossing the United States. For Jaziri, it seems, there’s always another tournament to play in, another match to prepare for. While he’s not sure how much longer he will compete on tour, he’s maintaining a positive outlook.
One thing’s certain at this stage of his career: Jaziri seems at peace with himself – win or lose – and having his family along with him in the U.S. this summer not only has been enjoyable, it’s made the long journey all worthwhile.
About the author
Michael Dickens is a Washington, D.C.-area freelance journalist who writes and blogs about tennis.