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Doha, Qatar – The Tunisian revolution was a turning point for Malek Jaziri in more ways than one.
Caught in the middle of the bloodshed and fearing for his life, the Tunis resident says that he was lifted by the strong camaraderie among his countrymen.
Six years on, he sees Tunisia in a much better state – and Jaziri’s tennis career has also improved since the Arab Spring. After almost a decade of struggle on the professional tour circuit, he finally cracked the game‘s top 100 for the first time in March 2012.
“I started to play very good after the revolution,” Jaziri, 32, told Al Jazeera with a smile. “The click, it started there. It’s unbelievable, but it’s true.”
Playing at the Qatar Open this month, Jaziri, with a world ranking of 56, showed glimpses of the form that earned him a career-high ranking of 49 towards the end of last season. Despite his early exit from the tournament, Jaziri is relishing playing against the best in the game.
Jaziri’s steady rise up the tennis ranks has not been easy. Growing up in the north of Tunisia, Jaziri followed his older brother by joining their local club; he fondly remembers carrying his brother‘s bag, picking up balls and wiping the dirt off the court lines.
“I didn’t have the opportunity in my country,” he said. “We don’t have big tournaments, so I didn’t have the chance to watch all the top guys when I was young.”
Jaziri honed his skills on the red clay courts of the Bizerte Tennis Club before joining the national federation team as a teenager in the capital Tunis. It was not long before he was dreaming of sliding on the Parisian clay in the French Open.
I started to play very good after the revolution. The click, it started there.
But with Tunisia lacking a strong tennis culture, Jaziri had to draw inspiration from neighbouring Morocco. Younes el-Aynaoui, Karim Alami and Hicham Arazi, who emerged in the 1990s, put North Africa on the world tennis map and set the benchmark for Arab tennis by making deep runs at Grand Slams and breaking the top-20 hurdle.
“I was watching the three musketeers. I said, ‘if they can do it, for sure, I can do it too’,” Jaziri explained. “I think that helped me take confidence and made it easier.”
Aynaoui, now retired and coaching Qatar’s national team, still considers his and his fellow nationals’ success astonishing bearing in mind the lack of a tennis structure and financial support in the region. For the same reason, he considers Jaziri’s journey all the more remarkable.
“It’s a great achievement, because it hasn’t been easy for him,” Aynaoui, one-time world number 14, said.
“He’s been on the tour for many years and finally, he can make a living out of it. People enjoy watching and supporting you, but maybe the sponsors and all that goes with it, it’s a bit slower than in other countries.”
|Jaziri caused controversy in 2013 by refusing to play against an Israeli opponent in Uzbekistan [Getty Images]|
As the most successful Tunisian and top African player in the world, Jaziri has been embracing the weight of expectations and limelight. But he made headlines for all the wrong reasons in 2013, when he was embroiled in a political controversy.
Jaziri withdrew against an Israeli player in a lower-tier Challenger match in Tashkent on the instructions of the Tunisian tennis federation. The move resulted in a one-year Davis Cup suspension for Tunisia.
Amir, Jaziri’s older brother and manager at the time, slammed the federation for mixing sport with politics and victimising his brother in the process. After the boycott was lifted, Jaziri faced and beat Israel’s Dudi Sela in Istanbul last year.
“I come from a country where we all live together,” Jaziri said.
“We have a big part of Jewish people in Tunisia, a big Christian community as well, so for me it’s never been about religion.”
At 6ft 1in and weighing 183 pounds, the stockily-built Jaziri owns an aggressive baseline game and is not afraid to approach the net. With high-profile wins in the bag, including against Belgium’s world number 11 David Goffin, Jaziri believes he is knocking on the top-30 door.
He says that his success has also had a ripple effect back home, with more tennis clubs opening in smaller cities in the south and the number of licensed players growing. Jaziri feels that he is peaking with age, just like his idol, Aynaoui, who reached his highest ranking at 31.
“It just shows that work finally pays,” Aynaoui said. “After so many years of trying, he finally pulled it off. He should put no limit on where he wants to go.”
Follow Saba Aziz on Twitter: @saba_aziz