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.
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.”
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Serena Williams was slow to get going before finding her groove to bulldoze into the Australian Open third round Thursday, joining rampant fellow world number one Novak Djokovic and comeback queen Victoria Azarenka.
With the temperatures again sizzling around 33 Celsius (93 Fahrenheit) at Melbourne Park, the American 18-time Grand Slam champion took time to adjust to the sauna-like conditions against Russian veteran Vera Zvonareva.
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She had to save two set points before exploding into action in the second set to easily win 7-5, 6-0 and keep alive her dream of a sixth Australian title.
Djokovic, gunning to be crowned champion a fifth time, was on fire in his showdown against Andrey Kuznetsov, crushing the hapless Russian 6-0, 6-1, 6-4, while defending champion Stan Wawrinka had to work hard to get past Marius Copil.
The Romanian took the fourth seed to two tiebreakers before the Swiss star triumphed 7-6 (7/4), 7-6 (7/4), 6-3. Japan's Kei Nishikori also went through.
In a blockbuster evening clash, two-time champion Azarenka crushed close friend and eighth seed Caroline Wozniacki 6-4, 6-2 as her comeback from injury gathers steam.
While the old guard of Williams and Maria Sharapova are safely into the third round, the new generation of Eugenie Bouchard and Simona Halep have looked more impressive in the early rounds.
Sixth seed Agnieszka Radwanska is also in ominous form after hiring former great Martina Navratilova as her coach.
The Pole, a semi-finalist last year, took just 44 minutes to brush aside Sweden's Johanna Larsson 6-0, 6-1 and has only lost four games in two matches.
Williams faces a tricky third round match against another of the new young guns in Spanish world number 24 Garbine Muguruza, who beat Daniela Hantuchova 6-1, 0-6, 6-1.
Her sister Venus also progressed, as did Czech fourth seed Petra Kvitova.
Men's top seed Djokovic came out of the blocks firing against Kuznetsov, who had no answer to his booming serve and powerful groundstrokes in a masterclass performance.
"Everything I intended to do, almost 100 percent, from every second in my game, serve, baseline play, aggressive shots and aggressive returns," said the Serb.
In contrast Wawrinka, who beat Rafael Nadal in last year's final, was put through his paces by Copil and was glad to get off court after three sets.
Fifth seed Nishikori was forced to four sets by Croatia's Ivan Dodig, digging deep to keep his dream of a maiden major title alive with a 4-6, 7-5, 6-2, 7-6 (7/0) win in front of a noisy pro-Japanese crowd.
Others through included Canadian eighth seed Milos Raonic, Spain's ninth seed David Ferrer and 12th seeded compatriot Feliciano Lopez.
There are a few things you come to expect from players in any interview.
“I never look at the draw”, “every opponent is tough”, “I will try my best”, “I will try to win matches and the ranking will come naturally”, are just a few of the clichés doing the rounds every day.
One more thing you can count on when having a conversation with a player? A random segue into a Roger Federer tribute that could last up to 15 minutes.
The other day, Feliciano Lopez, who at 33 is enjoying a career-high ranking of No12, explained to us how much he admires Federer.
“He floats on the court. He is absolutely unreal. He is super-gifted mentally and his movements are so perfect that he always looks great in photos. When we get photographed, we’re always stretched like this (mimes a long stretch) or look like this (gives weird face). With Federer, his photos always show him standing perfectly upright,” said the Spaniard.
On the same day, Serena Williams was asked what she considers the beauty of tennis to be and who in the game she perceived as beautiful and graceful.
She said: “When you mention graceful, the first person that comes to mind is Roger Federer. Everything he does is so smooth.”
The ‘Year of the Back’
Speaking of beautiful, we must give props to Nike for their bold designs this Australian Open.
The neon colours sported by many of their athletes are perfectly suited for the “Happy Slam” and Williams’ open-back yellow and pink dress was spot on.
The world No1 spoke about her dress and apparently, 2015 is the ‘Year of the Back’.
“I’ve been more focused on different parts of the body. Throughout the years we went for a more conservative look. This year we really wanted to bring out a powerful woman and a strong woman. So we wanted to do was to focus on the beautiful back,” she explained.
Williams admitted that wearing a more revealing outfit can often make her feel a tad self-conscious.
“First of all, I feel like I don’t want to eat too much,” she laughed. “One peanut and I’m going to break the dress! But this one is really trendy and young, but at the same time it also has a great message.”