Malek Jaziri has once again drawn a top seed in his opening round in Dubai and at this point, the Tunisian says he has got used to it.
The former top-50 player, now down to 116 in the world, faces No. 1 seed Grigor Dimitrov in his first round in Dubai on Tuesday.
Jaziri drew top seed – the then world No. 1 – Andy Murray in his opener last year in the Emirates and also took on a top-ranked Novak Djokovic in the second round in 2016 and a second-ranked Roger Federer in the 2013 first round.
“My reaction was normal because I’m used to it,” Jaziri told Sport360 when asked about his reaction to the draw this week.
“Most of my matches in Dubai have been against a world No. 1 or a top player in front of a full house stadium. It’s something great but at the same time it’s sometimes nerve-wracking. But hopefully this year I can cause a surprise and win this match. I’m optimistic.”
Jaziri’s best result in Dubai came in 2014 when he reached the quarter-finals before falling to Germany’s Philipp Kohlschreiber.
The 34-year-old has dropped out of the top-100 for the first time in two years and is looking to return in order to secure his place in Grand Slam main draws throughout the season.
“I’m improving my tennis. I feel like I have more shots in my arsenal, I’ve improved my backhand, and my forehand as well. And hopefully the results will follow,” explained the Tunisian.
“There is progress in my tennis and maybe the results aren’t showing it, not as I expected. But everything takes time, especially when you change things in your game, it takes time to see it reflected in your results. I’m working hard, I’m travelling with my coach (Christophe Freyss) and my fitness coach.
“I’m working hard on my physical fitness so I can be fitter for my matches, and also to extend my career. It’s important as well to make sure my recovery is better and quicker.”
This is Jaziri’s second year working with Freyss, a Frenchman who worked with Roger Federer when he was young.
Jaziri admits his slip in the rankings has been tough to handle but he is hopeful he can rebound.
He is a father to a young boy, Malek Jr., and says his son has been a motivating factor on the court.
“He’s already grabbing my tennis racquets and calls out for me. He is a source of motivation for me,” said Jaziri of his 21-month-old son.
“He watches me play and of course doesn’t understand what’s going on but he sees me running around and he’s happy. I hope to keep being a source of happiness for him.”
Following a career-best 2017 season that saw him rise to No. 3 in the world, Dubai top seed Grigor Dimitrov insists he is more focused on looking ahead than staying attached to the past.
The Bulgarian star, who ended last year by winning the ATP Finals in London, is making his first Dubai appearance since 2011, and just his second overall.
Still dealing with a cold that troubled him during his run to the Rotterdam final last week (lost to Roger Federer in straights), Dimitrov arrived in Dubai last Wednesday and has practiced every day hoping to get back to full health.
Dimitrov is considered the outright favourite for the title at the Aviation Club, as the only top-10 player in the field, and opens his campaign against Tunisian wildcard Malek Jaziri on Tuesday night.
“I think always those kind of draws are creating very big opportunities for everyone to do their best, to do better, to push themselves more,” the 26-year-old Dimitrov told reporters in Dubai on Sunday.
“But as I said, even in the past weeks, one of the most important things for me has been to really focus on myself, to start to build up again. From each tournament, as soon as I enter it, is to be better with each match. This is what I did the last week, the week before. I feel like this is the kind of key for me that I really need to focus on.”
Dimitrov started his year by making the semi-finals in Brisbane (lost to Nick Kyrgios) and reaching the quarter-finals of the Australian Open, where he was shocked by Kyle Edmund while dealing with a shoulder issue.
That injury forced him to pull out of his home tournament in Sofia earlier this month before heading to Rotterdam and reaching the final there.
Currently ranked No. 4 in the world, Dimitrov is often the hunted rather than the hunter nowadays at tournaments.
While he is yet to fully recover from his cold, he believes he’s ready to compete in Dubai.
“Whatever it is, it is. It’s behind me. No excuses. I’m going to play,” he assured on Sunday.
His new status among the world’s elite naturally means he is approaching his season slightly differently. He is trying not to get too carried away though by his own success.
“To really look back now and think, ‘Okay, this is a new start, new year, new beginning’, yes, that’s the case. At the same time, for me, I’m just trying to be very positive and good. Like everything in life goes through ups and downs, right? So I just don’t want to be too high, be too low after that kind of success,” said the Monaco-resident.
“When I started this year, I already had a different goals, different mindset. And, yeah, now is the same thing. With each tournament that I’m playing, for example, last week in Rotterdam, I did well. I’m like, ‘Okay, let me reassess how the tournament has gone, what else I need to be doing, what else I need to do in order to be better’. Things are just coming into play every week.
“You never know, you might get another injury, you might get another cold. Automatically you need to reassess the whole schedule that you have already planned and is ahead of you.
“I think every week can make you do that, to be honest. Yes, what had happened last year, it happened. It’s in the past. It’s a great memory, for sure. It’s something nice to feed off.”
Dimitrov didn’t play a tournament during the Dubai week last year, while he competed in Acapulco between 2014 and 2016 (the Mexican event coincides with the UAE one).
This year has changed things around and is making a return to the Aviation Club for the first time in seven years.
“It’s always nice to mix and match a little bit, I think. I always like my routines. I played certain tournaments throughout all the years,” he explained.
“There comes a time that it’s good to improvise, to try something new. It’s a big tournament. It’s a 500 event. I mean, I’m here to play, to win. I need points. I need everything.
“It’s something that I like to take into consideration. Also it’s warm conditions, outdoors. It’s great also to prepare for Indian Wells, Miami. Yeah, there are just I think a lot of components coming into the game right now.”
Dimitrov and Jaziri have never faced off on tour but are familiar with each other off the court.
“Malek? We’ve known each other for a really, really long time. We played a lot, even before we both got on tour,” said Dimitrov.
“He plays well. I know he has good results out here. He likes the conditions here. He’s been playing well. For sure I need to be ready. As I said, every opponent that you play, you just don’t have to underestimate, that’s all.
“Again, right now I’m just really, really focused even a bit more on myself, on the way I’m going to recover, just position myself this week.”
When Elina Svitolina tries to explain how she has managed to win 11 of 13 WTA finals she’s ever contested, she jokes that she wishes it was 13 out of 13.
The Ukrainian world No. 4 described her week in Dubai, where she defended her title by defeating Daria Kasatkina 6-4, 6-0 in the final, as “solid” and it was just that.
“I always set really high goals for myself. Of course I was kidding,” she says of the 13/13 remark.
“When I was growing up, for me, I just loved playing tennis. I loved competing. I think this really brought me into the high level.
“My family that was pushing me, not crazy, but in the right way. My brother who also had a big influence on me, motivating me when I was young, which was important. All these things that really came together. Yeah, I’m happy that I’m moving the right direction.”
On how she mentally approaches finals, she said: “All the time I try to take it as a challenge, something new. Each tournament, the ones that I won, brought something really special into my game. This title particularly, handling the pressure, playing the way I had to play on court, yeah. Every final was different. I tried to just be ready 100 per cent, then see how it goes.
“But I’m very pleased it’s going my way most of the time.”
Svitolina joins her former coach Justine Henin, and American legend Venus Williams, as the only three women to defend the Dubai title in the tournament’s 18-year history.
“It feels amazing. When they were announcing our names, they were saying that Justine and Venus are only the ones who defended their titles, I was like, ‘Okay, come on, you have to do this’. It really motivated me, which was good. It didn’t add more pressure,” said Svitolina.
“Yeah, I really enjoyed. It was tough battle in the first set. I was going through tough moments. She was fighting really, really hard. Yeah, was high intensity. But I was pleased the way I handle it.”