WASHINGTON, February 28, 2018 (by Michael Dickens)
When Malek Jaziri came from a set down to beat top seed Grigor Dimitrov, 4-6, 7-5, 6-4, in the first round of the Dubai Duty Free Tennis Championships on Tuesday night, it marked the 117th-ranked Tunisian’s first career victory over an ATP Top 10-ranked opponent (after going 0-10 lifetime). After being congratulated at the net by the fallen No. 1 seed from Bulgaria, Jaziri smiled, and pumped his right fist in celebration as he received the plaudits from the lively Dubai crowd. Then, the 34-year-old tour veteran – and Arab No. 1 – knelt down and briefly kissed Centre Court.
Competing in his sixth consecutive Dubai main draw – this year relegated to accepting a wild card entry because of his ranking – Jaziri is no stranger to facing top seeds in this late winter, outdoor ATP 500 event held annually at the Aviation Club in the United Arab Emirates. In previous years, Jaziri has faced Roger Federer, Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray with little success. So, it came as no surprise to anyone that when the 32-player main draw was released over the weekend, Jaziri would draw World No. 4 Dimitrov, this year’s top seed, as his first-round opponent. Unlike the other times, this time Jaziri beat the odds – and he won. It was easily the biggest win of his career – and his most impressive since beating then-No. 14 David Goffin in Shenzhen in 2016.
“(It is a) great feeling today, to win my first (match against a) Top 5 player,” said Jaziri, during his post-match press conference. “I am really happy for that. I tried to fight every point since the beginning. It was so tight.”
At times, Jaziri’s win wasn’t very pretty – the Tunisian double-faulted away the first set to Dimitrov – but his never-say-die attitude pulled him through that disappointing moment as well as some tense ones in both the second and decisive third sets, too.
At 5-all in the second set, Jaziri broke Dimitrov to push ahead, then held his serve to even the match. He raised his game by placing 71% of his first serves in play during the middle set and won 83% of his points on his first serve, both impressive statistics. Then, in the third set, Dimitrov started to show lingering signs of the flu he’s been recently battling. Meanwhile, Jaziri’s game grew stronger as he saved all three break points he faced and lost just nine points on his serve. Jaziri broke Dimitrov during the seventh game of the final set by taking advantage of his opponent’s 12th double fault – and, finally, he never looked back.
Although Dimitrov fought off a couple of match points before holding serve in the ninth game, Jaziri prevailed in his final service game to capture the match on his third match-point opportunity. He advanced to play Robin Haase of the Netherlands in the second round and earned another Centre Court evening appearance for his effort against Dimitrov.
Jaziri outpointed Dimitrov 112-101 by winning 67 points on his serve and 45 points on return. The Tunisian finished with five aces against three double faults, won 78% (42 of 54) of his first serve points, 63% (25 of 40) of his second-serve points, and saved seven of eight break points. Although Dimitrov fired 14 aces, he also committed 12 double faults.
After the match, Dimitrov, who is the reigning Nitto ATP Finals champion, praised Jaziri during his post-match presser. “All the credit to Malek,” he said. “He played a good game. He was strong throughout the whole match. Actually was hitting pretty good shots. I mean, (he had) nothing to lose.”
Indeed, just a year removed from being ranked No. 47 – his highest career ATP ranking – Jaziri’s world ranking has been in a free fall thanks to racking up a lot of disappointing first-round losses on both the World and Challenger tours, and unsuccessfully defending his rankings points. Recently, he’s made some adjustments to his game – changing the way he hits his backhand, for instance – and Jaziri also became reunited with coach Christophe Freyss, who is keeping the Tunisian focused. Slowly, it’s starting to pay some dividends. “I was really aggressive today,” said Jaziri.
Later, during a separate interview with Sport360 tennis writer Reem Abulleil, Jaziri said he hopes his victory over Dimitrov can inspire other young Arab tennis players to follow in his footsteps. “I was hearing the cheers from a lot of young Arab kids and after I won I saw how happy they all were for me,” he said. “I hope that this can show them that Arabs can compete with and defeat the best players in the world, as long as we work hard for it.”
On this wonderful night, at least, Jaziri’s stunning upset of Dimitrov – one of the sport’s elite players – reminded everyone that hard work does have its just reward. “I hope it is a turning point for me.”
About the author
Michael Dickens is a Washington, D.C.-area freelance journalist who writes and blogs about tennis.