“Game, Set and Match, Tomic.”
The umpire announced the result of the match on his microphone. Malek Jaziri walked over to the net. He had just suffered a crushing defeat to resurgent Australian Bernard Tomic – one that he thought would send him out of the Rogers Cup before the start of the tournament’s main draw.
It was a tight battle from the get go. Jaziri, the more aggressive at the start of the match; Tomic, fresh off his second title on the tour, valiantly fighting back in the second set.
The sun peaked through enough to engulf the Rexall Centre with one of its hottest Sundays in recent memory. And while the crowd was certainly not enjoying the slow roast in the stands, both players got up from their seats to start the third set with eager anticipation.
Although he had injured his shoulder midway through the second set and required the services of a medic, Jaziri continued to pound the ball at Tomic with ferocious intent. He threatened the young Aussie frequently on serve but was unable to clinch the crucial break advantage.
Eventually, Tomic found his way through.
A cunning drop shot and several perfectly placed serves were all that were required for the one-time Aussie prodigy to steal the break and close out the match.
The Tunisian was left to walk off the court relatively unnoticed, while his opponent hit balls into the crowd and signed autographs for eager fans.
Back to the grind. Seemed like just another day on the tennis circuit.
Jaziri, 30, is the ATP World Tour’s top-ranked Arab competitor and once held the cosy spot in the Top 100 at No. 69, which he attained following his second round appearance at the Wimbledon Championships two years ago. He became the first Tunisian player to reach the semi-final round of an ATP World Tour event – an achievement he earned at the Kremlin Cup in 2012.
Although a gifted competitor, he faces the inherent disadvantage of being from a poor and tennis starved nation. It is the entire region that suffers from this same dilemma. There is simply not enough demand to fund tennis athletes in the Middle East and North Africa and that is evident in how sparsely sprinkled they are across the lower end of the Emirates Rankings.
The highest ranked Egyptian on the ATP World Tour right now is Mohamed Safwat, who currently sits at No. 249, but peaked at No. 187 in March, 2014. Jaziri himself currently sits at No. 114 and they are the only two Arabs in the Top 300. Gone are the days of Ismail El Shafei, who is hailed as Egypt’s greatest tennis player for his historic win over Bjorn Borg in the third round of the 1974 Wimbledon Championships.
El Shafei came from a wealthy family with a history rooted in tennis, which allowed him the resources to earn a coveted Top 40 spot in the world rankings. No other Egyptian has enjoyed such an achievement, and the same can be said about the large majority of Arab and North African nations.
Jaziri is one of the few shining talents in the region, and while he holds two ATP Challenger titles, one of which included a win against Germany’s Jan-Lennard Struff in the final last season, he is still struggling to find his footing on the professional circuit. He holds the responsibility of being the MENA region’s top athlete, as well as the pressure of trying to make a living as a journeyman on the tour.
Then something interesting occurred. Jaziri discovered on Monday morning that he would still be a part of the tournament. A right shoulder injury had forced Marinko Matosevic out of the Rogers Cup.
After having mentally prepared himself for departure, Jaziri was back at the tournament and in a first-round match against Spain’s Guillermo Garcia-Lopez.
He was not going to let this opportunity pass him by.
New balls please.