In this day and age where sport is heavily dictated by money and everything has a price, it’s refreshing to come across a purely selfless deed in the world of professional tennis.
Those who happened to be at Court 10 on day one at the Australian Open may have spotted Wimbledon legend Goran Ivanisevic sitting courtside watching the match between Tunisian Malek Jaziri and Kazakhstan’s Mikhail Kukushkin.
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They were probably wondering what the Croat, who coaches the injured US Open champion Marin Cilic, was doing there. And they probably couldn’t have guessed the answer.
The pair met at the IPTL last November, and they were both part of the UAE Royals team that visited four cities in three weeks. As Ivanisevic helped Cilic prepare for the 2015 season on the sidelines of the IPTL, the 2001 Wimbledon champion started helping out the 31-year-old Jaziri, who has no proper team around him and travels to most events without a coach.
With many Arab tennis federations lacking funds and resources, it is common that a player from the region would have no real set-up for his tennis career. But at this level, for a player who has reached the third round of a grand slam and is ranked inside the top-75, going at it solo seems inconceivable to Ivanisevic.
“He’s lost in space and he’s No70 in the world,” Ivanisevic told Sport360 ahead of Jaziri’s third round clash with Nick Kyrgios on Friday.
“We really became great friends in the IPTL, he’s an unbelievable guy. He is a great talent but he has no idea about tennis – no coach, he doesn’t practice, he doesn’t go to the gym, and he’s No70 in the world. So he’s an unbelievable talent.”
Ivanisevic came to Australia earlier this month for a commitment in Adelaide and when Cilic pulled out of Melbourne, the 43-year-old approached Jaziri.
“I told Malek ‘listen, I’m going to coach you here’. I have nothing to do and he’s a really nice guy,” explained Ivanisevic.
“So he won two rounds. The first round he played an amazing match, he played against Kukushkin, who played the final in Sydney.”
Jaziri fought off the Kazakh in four sets in round one before pulling off a rough five-set win over Edouard Roger-Vasselin two days later.
“I don’t know how I can describe that match,” Ivanisevic said of Jaziri’s second round clash.
“He took another 10 years of my life that’s for sure. 6-1, 2-0 he didn’t move. And then he started to play. And then four match points. But it’s great to see because he really can play good tennis.”
Ivanisevic has been helping Jaziri with practice, tactics and other aspects typically contributed by a coach. But the Croat is aware this is only temporarily feasible and he urges Jaziri to find a way to hire someone full-time.
“I can always help him when I’m on the tour. He can practice with Marin, with me, he’s a nice guy and I like him a lot, but he needs to find hopefully somebody that can travel with him,” said Ivanisevic.
“I told him during the IPTL ‘try, give yourself one or two years. Invest in you, because you’re really good. You’re 70 in the world, imagine if you had everything, how high you can go? Try, if it works, it works, if it doesn’t, at least you tried because after that you’re going to feel sorry that you didn’t try’.
“He’s lost in space and he’s No70 in the world,” – Ivanisevic on Jaziri
“So hopefully I can push him a little bit, to maybe find somebody to be okay with him, to travel to some weeks.”
For now, Ivanisevic is happy to help in any way he can as Jaziri prepares to face Kyrgios on Margaret Court Arena on Friday in front of his opponent’s home crowd. He sees it as a perfect opportunity for the Tunisian to make his mark.
“People don’t know about Jaziri but then they’re very surprised when they play him,” he said.
“They say ‘okay, who am I playing? Jaziri, I’ll win’. My ass! It’s not going like that. He showed everybody here.
“He has the perfect match now. All the pressure is on Kyrgios. Everybody expects Kyrgios to win, playing the guy from Tunisia. But it’s not going to be easy, because he’s the guy who likes attention, likes the crowd. It’s going to be on a big stadium – the only problem is that Malek has never played on a big stadium here. He’s going to be nervous.
“But I told him to go there and enjoy. We spoke about a few things, how he should play. If he wins, it will be an amazing story. If not, he made the third round and it’s a good start of the year and hopefully things get better and better.”
Ivanisevic agrees that what he is doing is very uncommon in the world of professional tennis but he sees no reason why he shouldn’t be aiding Jaziri.
“I didn’t have anybody helping me when I was growing up and if I have the opportunity now to help out, why not advise him in my free time?” he says.
In making the third round in Melbourne this week, Jaziri became just the fifth Arab man in history, and first since 2004, to reach this stage at any major.
“I’m really happy for him,” Ivanisevic added. “Because it’s big for the Arab world. Especially Tunisia, somebody from that country, they never had a third round grand slam player, it’s great. And somehow I became part of it as well.
“It couldn’t happen to a better person. I always say ‘good things happen for a reason’. I never knew him, we played in the IPTL, we became great friends… everything. Somebody upstairs saw something and has put people together.
“Hopefully on Friday he plays well (against Kyrgios), he goes there and shows the world that also from that part of the world people can play good tennis.”