Tunisian Malek Jaziri became the first Arab since Younes El Aynaoui in Casablanca 2003 to reach an ATP final thanks to an impressive victory on Saturday against Laslo Djere in Istanbul.
The 34-year-old booked his place in his maiden final with a 6-3, 6-2 success over Djere, to set up a showdown with Japan’s Taro Daniel, who is also a first-time finalist on tour.
Jaziri was 0-3 in career semi-finals heading into Saturday’s clash but showed no signs of nerves against his Serbian opponent.
The world No. 78 is now looking to become the first Arab since El Aynaoui in 2002 to claim an ATP title.
“I’m really happy to make my first final. I’ve been working really hard for this, improving every week,” Jaziri told Sport360 after his win.
“I hope to make all Arabs and Tunisians happy and get the win tomorrow. Tunisia went through tough times and it’s great to be able to bring a smile to people’s faces back home. I was amazed by the reaction in Tunisia after I beat Marin Cilic two days ago. I hope to keep going, the job is not done yet.”
Jaziri defeated world No. 4 Marin Cilic on Thursday in the second round in Istanbul, to claim a second top-10 victory this season.
His first was a win over Grigor Dimitrov in Dubai en route to the semi-finals in February. He almost defeated Dimitrov again in Barcelona last week, holding two match points against the Bulgarian before falling in three sets.
“I’ve been playing good tennis since a few weeks now,” said Jaziri. “I’ve been working hard with my coach. I’ve been able to travel with a coach and a fitness trainer all season and we’re developing my game and my fitness each day.
“These wins over Marin and Grigor are very important. I showed my level, that I can beat these guys. In the past I was missing some confidence in these kind of matches but now I showed what I’m capable of. I was close to beating Grigor again in Barcelona.
“But anyway there is still work to be done. I’ll keep working hard. I’m happy but it’s fine, it’s still not over yet.”
Jaziri wrapped up his win over Djere in one hour and 31 minutes.
“Today I tried to be focused from the very beginning. He was playing good. It wasn’t easy because I’m tired, played two hours yesterday, three hours the day before. And the conditions were heavy too because of the rain. I’m happy I got through,” he said.
Jaziri has never played Daniel before but says he has watched him play a bit.
“He’s a baseliner who likes to run a lot. Hopefully I can win,” said the North African.
The second clay Masters 1000 event of the season begins today in Madrid as players continue to gear up for the French Open.
The top eight seeds have received first-round byes but there will be no shortage of action at the Caja Magica on opening day as No. 14 seed Tomas Berdych takes on French former top-tenner Richard Gasquet in a marquee round one on Estadio Manolo Santana (not before 16:30 Dubai time on beIN Sports).
Rafael Nadal is the defending champion and top seed in the Spanish capital and will be looking to add a sixth Madrid trophy to his CV.
Roger Federer, Andy Murray, Stan Wawrinka and Nick Kyrgios are all high-profile absentees while Novak Djokovic is seeded No. 10 at the tournament and will be looking to recapture the magic that saw him win the Madrid title in 2011 and 2016.
Here are the main talking points surrounding the men’s draw in Spain…
CAN NADAL KEEP HIS SWEEP CHANCES ALIVE?
Nadal enters Madrid flying high on a 19-match winning streak on clay dating back to last year’s French Open. He has also won his last 46 consecutive sets on the red dirt and seems untouchable on the surface despite struggling with a hip problem from January to April.
His dominance poses the question of whether he can pull off a sweep of all Masters 1000 tournaments – Monte Carlo, Madrid and Rome – this clay season. The only time Nadal has managed to bulldoze through all three events was in 2010. He has won two of the three in eight different seasons, including last year.
Will 2018 be the year Nadal manages to pull off the clay Masters sweep once again? The way he’s been playing, having already won an 11th Monte Carlo crown and an 11 Barcelona trophy in the past few weeks, it’s looking more and more likely.
— Mutua Madrid Open (@MutuaMadridOpen) May 5, 2018
CAN ANYONE END THE BIG FOUR STRONGHOLD ON MADRID?
This year witnesses the 10th anniversary of the Caja Magica, the venue that has been hosting the Madrid Open since it switched from indoor hard court to clay back in 2009. Since the tournament migrated within the Spanish capital, the title has been exclusive to a member of the ‘Big Four’ – Nadal, Federer, Murray or Djokovic. No non-Big Four player has tasted success at the Caja Magica. Will someone finally loosen their grasp on the Madrid trophy?
IS DJOKOVIC’S DRAW A BLESSING IN DISGUISE?
Djokovic was dealt a tough hand, having to face Monte Carlo runner-up Kei Nishikori in the opening round. His path will not get any easier should he advance with the likes of Chung Hyeon, David Goffin, Grigor Dimitrov, Denis Shapovalov and Milos Raonic all lurking in his quarter of the draw.
It may seem like a nightmare situation but it could be just what the doctor ordered for Djokovic. This is the kind of draw he needs to be able to navigate in order to regain his confidence. Just think of the boost he would get if he takes care of Nishikori in the opening round. What out for the Serb this week!
WILL DEL POTRO COME BACK WITH A BANG?
We haven’t seen him in nearly five weeks but before he took a break, Juan Martin del Potro won 15 matches in a row, claiming titles in Acapulco and Indian Wells before falling in the Miami semi-finals. There were question marks on whether he would compete on clay at all this season but the Argentine has made it to Madrid, where he is seeded No. 4, and will kick off his clay swing at the Caja Magica.
His record at the tournament is 14-6 (best result is making semis in 2012) and this is his first appearance here since 2016 (lost to Jack Sock in the second round).
Del Potro is playing doubles with Dominic Thiem this week as well, in attempt to find his footing on clay. And while the red dirt doesn’t seem like Del Potro’s favourite surface, it’s worth noting that he has a 71 per cent winning record on clay – the seventh-highest among active players.
— Juan M. del Potro (@delpotrojuan) May 5, 2018
Serena, who returned to the tour from maternity leave in March by making the Indian Wells third round and losing her opener in Miami, has been training for the clay season at her coach Patrick Mouratoglou’s academy in the south of France but withdrew from this week’s Madrid Open, throwing her Roland Garros participation in doubt.
But Venus says Serena is on track to make a return to action, for the first time since Miami, in Rome next week.
“I think she’s looking forward to hopefully playing in Rome… I don’t know. I don’t think there’s any reason why she can’t continue and hopefully be able to play Rome and the French Open,” Venus said at the Caja Magica ahead of her Madrid opening round against Anett Kontaveit.
Venus will be playing her first match since her quarter-final exit in Miami in March and is appearing in Madrid for the first time since 2015.
The 37-year-old is seeded No. 8 in the draw and plays Kontaveit on Saturday.
“I want to do well. I haven’t played in a month, more. So I just have to see how it goes and try to learn every match,” said Venus, who was runner-up at the Caja Magica in 2010.
She is hoping to get over any rustiness quickly in order to go far in the tournament.
“I hope pretty fast. Sometimes you have bad luck and somebody plays too well and you’re not at your best but for the most part you hope that you have some chances to get into the match and get into the tournament,” she added.
“I found the courts here to be completely different than when I came here last a few years ago for the better actually, different for the better. They actually look and feel like French Open courts in a lot of ways whereas before it felt more like Har-Tru.”