Younes El Aynaoui is the most successful Arab player in the history of tennis and he set an ATP record when he won a match at 38 in Doha right before he retired.
He also treated us to one of the most memorable matches at the Australian Open when he played Andy Roddick for five hours in the quarter-finals in 2003 before he lost 4-6, 7-6, 4-6, 6-4, 21-19. He had beaten the-then world No1 Lleyton Hewitt in the previous match.
A five-time ATP titleist and four-time Grand Slam quarter-finalist, the former world No14 was the pride of the Middle East and North Africa.
I caught up with the 41-year-old in Dubai on Wednesday to get his thoughts on the ongoing Australian Open…
It’s been 10 years since your epic match with Andy Roddick, 21-19 in the fifth set in the 2003 Australian Open quarter-finals. How do you look back on that match?
I actually got a few interview requests this year about that match because some journalists remembered that fact. I’m still amazed how much impact that match had and I still remember it very well. During the match you never realise it’s going to make all this big fuss but the next day you start realising how much people enjoyed it and that it would be remembered for a long time. During the whole year every time I was going to a tournament especially in the States I could feel it.
Is it more difficult losing such a close match like that?
At that stage, in a Grand Slam quarter-final, it feels the same. You’re upset because you lost. Only one thing matters which is winning, so when a match doesn’t end on your side you’re sad. But that one, I think the people were a bit surprised that even though I lost the match I was still… you know fair play, and I was happy that I participated in that match.
Who would you like to see win the Australian Open?
I love Roger [Federer], I think he’s great for the game and I’d love to see him winning more Slams. Of course if you look at Murray or Djokovic – Murray is unbelievably strong, physically now he’s going to be very tough to beat. Novak is also very confident. I would love to see Roger but it’s going to be very tough for him.
What about the Ferrer-Djokovic semi-final, do you see a window at all for Ferrer?
Not really. They almost have the same type of game but Djokovic is more powerful, he can accelerate the ball I think faster than Ferrer. I think physically it will be a battle. They’re both going to lose a lot of energy and I think the next guy is going to be happy if they play five sets, a long five-setter. But I think Djokovic is a little bit up (has the edge).
What about the fact that Djokovic went through two very tough matches against Wawrinka and Berdych back to back? Will that affect him physically against someone as tireless as Ferrer?
I think he’s ready. Physically he doesn’t lose so much energy when he plays, he can play pretty relaxed. He’s shown in the past that physically he’s ready, he doesn’t get tired. So I think we have to count on him and not assume he’s going to get tired.
So who do you think will win the whole tournament?
I think the favourite is Novak but the one I would like to see winning is Federer.
I talked to Tim Henman a few days ago and he picks Murray over Federer in the semis…
I hope not, I enjoy much more watching a guy like Federer, with so many different kinds of shots during the match. It’s really a pleasure and it’s great for tennis to see Roger play.
Are you surprised Federer is still going strong?
I think he’s still young, he’s 31. I played my highest ranking when I was 33 so I still had a couple of years. I hope he’s going to play some more. Many tennis players used to finish their careers when they were 29 or 30 but now it’s going to go longer. They are taking better care of their bodies, with private physios and doctors so I think they will play more.
What about the women’s side, did you have your eyes on a particular player these two weeks?
I like to see Svetlana (Kuznetsova), I know her personally and it was nice to see her in the quarter-finals. She also looks like a veteran but maybe she’s only 26 or 27. I like to follow the Williams sisters. But honestly I miss players like Justine Henin, Amelie Mauresmo with those beautiful backhands. But the level is high, it’s very intense. When I’m watching women’s tennis I see some really strong strokes and good physical, it improved so much.
Do you think Azarenka has the game to stay at the top for a while rather than slip down quickly the way Wozniacki did?
No I think with the women, it’s not like how it was before. Maybe only Serena, when she is in top form, she’s the only one now who can dominate and stay at the top. Azarenka she looks like mentally she’s the strongest now, she has the most confidence but I think this is going to be changing soon.
Are there any young players who have impressed you recently? Or any non-top-four players who have potential?
I like Grigor Dimitrov. Unfortunately he lost early. We were expecting after the grass court season last year when he played good that he would keep it up. I always like to follow the French guys, like Gael Monfils and Jo Tsonga, I enjoy watching them playing. But it looks like the four, five guys we have they’re going to be at the top for another couple of years I think.
Do you think Jo can win a Grand Slam this year?
Jo showed that he’s not afraid of playing the big guys. He beat Roger at Wimbledon, so it’s a matter of one or two matches with his big serve, he can believe in anything so if his body feels good, I think he can be dangerous also.
What about Gael, can he focus for two weeks straight to win a Major?
That’s his problem. He’s so talented physically, his body, I think he could have played any sport and been great. Focus is his problem, hopefully we’ll find somebody that can help him. A good coach who can settle his energy. He also has a very big potential.
Tunisia’s Malek Jaziri briefly broke the top-100 last year and now he’s just outside. Have you seen him play?
I saw a couple of his matches. He struggled for many years and finally he made it to the top-100. So all credit to him. Hopefully he will carry some other players with him, so they can feel closer to him. It’s always nice to see a North African especially in that position.
He’s 29 now, do you think at this age he can still push further and maybe make it to the top-50?
Especially me I couldn’t say the opposite. My highest ranking was at 33. He still has a couple of years. He has to try everything. He’s at No100, so it’s just a little step from there. If he can maintain that ranking, be in the main draw, avoid to play qualifying, yes why not? He can make the top-50.
Murray and Djokovic are becoming the main rivalry on tour right now, they played each other seven times last year. They have similar games, do you think one of them will have to bring something different in order edge ahead?
Now it looks like Djokovic is winning the head-to-head. I think Djokovic has more speed, a bit more inside the court. Murray is playing a bit back. Djokovic can come to the net, Murray likes to stay more back. I’m afraid… I hope they’re not going to be boring matches from the back, that’s when we’re going to start missing Roger and his mixed type of shots with the slices, the short angles and the volleys. But this baseline game is paying off, those guys are on top of the rankings, so it means it’s efficient and they are winning matches.