WASHINGTON, September 17, 2017 (by Michael Dickens)
A year ago, geopolitical progress and acceptance – not points and money – were the focus of the American Express Istanbul Challenger final when Malek Jaziri of Tunisia, the No. 1 Arab player in the world, faced Dudi Sela of Israel, a Jew, in Istanbul, Turkey. Instead of the threat of a mandated boycott, which got Tunisia banned from Davis Cup competition in 2014 when the Tunisian tennis federation forced Jaziri to withdraw from a 2013 Challenger match in Uzbekistan rather than face a Jewish opponent, this time Jaziri got to compete. The fans who attended the 2016 Istanbul final witnessed a significant match, and the tournament organizers were not short-changed by an empty final. Most importantly, sport overruled decades of Arab-Israeli political differences.
Fast forward 12 months to Sunday’s final, where the defending champion and top-seeded Jaziri was present on Center Court, again, going for his seventh career ATP Challenger title. While there was no political tension present this time, there was plenty of drama.
The No. 75-ranked Tunisian gutted out a 7-6 (4), 0-6, 7-5 victory over 21-year-old #NextGenATP star Matteo Berrettini of Italy that lasted two hours and 36 minutes. A year ago, Jaziri needed just 71 minutes to beat Sela in straight sets for his first Istanbul Challenger title. Sunday, Jaziri needed all the energy he could muster to go the distance for his fifth consecutive win since losing in the second round of the U.S. Open and second Istanbul crown. This year’s title was worth 90 ATP rankings points and $10,800 USD in prize money to the 33-year-old Jaziri. It was his first Challenger Tour title of the year.
Jaziri improved his 2017 tie-break record to 11-10 despite being outpointed by the No. 141-ranked Berrettini, 110-95. There were 10 breaks of serve – four for Jaziri and six for Berrettini – and Jaziri faced 15 break points, saving nine of them.
As has been a pattern for the Arab No. 1 this season, Jaziri often plays down to the level of his opponent – and he’s been known to have trouble maintaining his focus. Four of his five matches this week needed three sets to decide the outcome – and in all but one he won the first set. That was the case for the Tunisian against Berrettini, coming a day after Jaziri came on strong in his semifinal win over rising Arab star Karim-Mohamed Maamoun of Egypt, who improved his live ranking by 22 places to No. 238 in reaching the semifinals.
Fortunately for Jaziri, his experience played in his favor over the entirety of the final against Berrettini. He mixed his returns throughout and wasn’t afraid to come in to the net on points. Meanwhile, the Italian committed numerous unforced errors while hitting most of his returns from the baseline.
After splitting the first two sets, Jaziri took an undisclosed medical timeout before beginning the final set. The extra few minutes seemed to rejuvenate him. He broke Berrettini in the eighth game for a 5-3 advantage, but immediately lost the break in the next game. At 5-all, Jaziri held with a solid service game to push ahead 6-5, then reached match point at 15-40, after Berrettini committed three consecutive unforced errors. Although the Italian managed to save one match point, Jaziri put away the match in the next point with a solid forehand return that Berrettini hit wide.
• Notes: Sunday’s title win was Jaziri’s first since winning the 2016 Istanbul Challenger a year ago. His victory over Berrettini moved him up one place to No. 74 in the live ATP rankings. … Jaziri is the top seed entering the ATP Challenger Tour’s Izmir Cup, which starts Monday in Izmur, Turkey. Jaziri’s first-round opponent in the 32-draw hard court tournament will be a rematch against Maamoun.
About the author
Michael Dickens is a Washington, D.C.-based freelance journalist who writes and blogs about tennis.