Malek Jaziri has made many adjustments to his game.
An overhauled lifestyle and an off-court makeover have helped Malek Jaziri become a top-60 player for the first time in his career and the Tunisian is hoping the changes he made can aid his cause at Wimbledon this fortnight.
Jaziri, the highest ranked Arab in both men’s and women’s tennis, opens his campaign on Monday against American Steve Johnson, who won his maiden ATP title in Nottingham just two days ago.
Having reunited with his Serbian coach Dejan Petrovic last February, Jaziri says he’s taken a more professional approach to the sport.
“I feel good, I played two tournaments on grass this year, more than usual. I practiced good, playing more ATP events… the last few weeks I’ve been playing well, I made some good results, I improved my ranking, I’m in my best ranking right now, so I’m playing a good level of tennis. I’m doing more professional things outside the court,” Jaziri told Sport360 at the All England Club.
“I stopped eating gluten, I’ve lost four or five kilos already. I made a few tests and I’m intolerant to some food, including gluten. I can only eat goat cheese but no other kind, I can’t eat tomatoes, beans, dried fruit, almonds… in Tunisia we buy fresh almond from the street and I love it but I can’t eat it anymore. Everything I like I found out I can’t eat it,” he said with a laugh.
“I stopped eating sugar or drinking coke and I eat smaller portions than before. I feel much better.
“My coach encouraged me to do that. I have other things I need to improve as well.
“I’m doing yoga now because I’m not breathing well on the court and I feel that if I improve these things I can be much better.
“I do well against the top players but I sometimes lose my concentration for a second and it’s all over. Against (Roger) Federer in Halle, I was 4-1 up in the second set, then 4-3, and I was serving and had advantage and then I challenged a call. I should’ve just focused on the next point. These kind of things. I need to work on my concentration to go to the next step.”
Since reuniting with Petrovic, Jaziri has been travelling to most tournaments with his coach, and here at Wimbledon, he also has a physio and a yoga instructor with him. At the mature age of 32, Jaziri is by no means at the start of his career but he has no regrets over any of the time behind him and the different choices he could have made in the past.
“I’m not thinking about that. Sometimes I said ‘wow, what would have happened had I done all this before?’ But Malek from today is not Malek from before. I’m not the same player and I was not mature, that’s a personal thing,” he says.
“The second thing, the people around me… I was practicing in Tunisia and I was playing for fun, I wasn’t doing anything professionally and bit by bit I won some matches and I found myself playing with the best players in the world. That’s the reality.
“During Roland Garros I was telling them ‘you guys have a tennis culture, you have players before you, you know the way and how to arrive there’. In my case nobody told me anything, I only knew Futures.
“When I went to Spain I started to play Challengers. Before that, the first time I entered Roland Garros, I was a sparring partner when I was 24 and half-years-old. That was before my comeback (from a knee injury that sidelined me for two years). Since that, I started to believe that I can do it.
“So I started my career late and I didn’t use my body like the other guys. So now, thank God, I’m healthy, I’m working, and most importantly I’m enjoying the game, having fun, I’m married, I have a kid (a one-month-old named Malek), enjoying life, I’m doing what I like…
“The good thing is that tennis has changed these days and you can play longer. Look at Karlovic, he’s 37, Stepanek, 38, Tommy Haas, he’s injured but he’s 38, Federer is turning 35, Ferrer, 35, Feliciano Lopez, the same… Tennis has changed.
“Each year I’m getting more experience and more confidence. You have to make your place, earn the respect of the guys on the court by beating them. And for sure I feel that other players regard me differently now and I’m very comfortable on tour.”
Unlike previous seasons where Jaziri has played more Challengers than ATP events, this year, the Bizerte-native has contested 11 ATP tournaments, along with the Australian and French Opens. He also picked up two Challenger titles in Guadeloupe and Guadalajara.
His best Wimbledon result was making the second round in 2012. After winning his first round that year, he found out he had made it into the Olympics, thanks to a wildcard. This time around, he is into the Olympics draw via direct entry, courtesy of his ranking.
“Last time in 2012, I won my Wimbledon first round on Court 6 and then I found out I was in the Olympics. Tomorrow I play on Court 6, so here we are again and hopefully it will bring me luck,” he joked.
“But no, it’s very important that I’m in the Olympics main draw with my ranking. The Olympics was an objective of mine this season and it’s an honour to represent my country. I got experience too from the last Olympics and hopefully this Olympics will be better for me.”
Looking ahead to his opener against Johnson, Jaziri added: “I play well on hard surfaces so for me grass is, if I get used to it, and I play a few matches here… okay, it’s not an easy draw first round.
“Johnson has beaten a lot of guys the last two months, he’s playing very well. He’s in his best ranking too, I think he’s top-30 now. It’s not easy. I already played him before. But I’m playing good too and it’s not the Malek from before, I have more confidence. We’ll see what happens on court.”
While tennis players spend their lives planning ahead, committing to tournaments a year in advance, and setting goals for the entire season, Del Potro has learned the hard way how to take life one day at a time.
He has not hired a long-term coach, has not set a fixed schedule for the remaining five months of the season and has no idea when his wrist will be back at 100 per cent. But there is one thing the 27-year-old is certain about: he wants to enjoy the game he loves and will do anything he can to hold on to it.
It has been a brutal period for Del Potro over the past couple of years, especially considering he had problems with his other wrist that sidelined him earlier in his career, just after he won his first and only grand slam at the 2009 US Open and peaked at No4 in the world.
But it’s been a test that taught him an important life lesson.
“I think you never know what could happen in your life. You just have to try to be happy all the time, on the court, off the court as well,” Del Potro told Sport360 at SW19, of what he learned from this whole injury experience.
“My mum always told me ‘you have to study because the tennis life is very short and you never know what could happen’ and I finished my school at the same time as my friends and if I go to university I have the chance to start tomorrow if I want to because I did all my school in good terms and that’s important for all the junior players and all the kids. My mum was very smart with me.”
For now, university is not on his mind.
Since his return to action in February, ranked outside the top-1000, Del Potro has played seven tournaments and reached two semi-finals – on hard courts in Delray Beach and on grass in Stuttgart – and is now up to No164 in the world rankings.
During his hiatus, Del Potro had to part ways with his coach Franco Davin as he was unaware how long – if ever – it would take him to return to tennis and he spent the past few months without anyone helping him. But last week, he started working with Venezuelan Dani Vallverdu – Andy Murray’s ex-hitting partner, who recently split with Tomas Berdych. Del Potro revealed it is just a temporary arrangement though.
“I don’t know if we’re going to work together in the future but from the moment and for this big event, it is a great option to work together, and then I will have time to decide,” said Del Potro.
“We’ve known each other since junior tournaments and we’re staying together here because he was alone and I’ve been alone for a while and we have a great relationship. For me it’s great to have Dani here because he knows me a lot and he also has the same culture since he is a Venezuelan guy and he’s a very good person.”
With former champions – referred to as “super coaches” – swarming the grounds here at Wimbledon as they accompany the ATP stars they are coaching, has Del Potro thought about potentially hiring one himself?
“To be honest I didn’t think much about coaches because I’m still recovering my wrist and the most time of the day I’m doing treatments for my wrist and I couldn’t practice 100 per cent yet because I do three hours a day my wrist treatments and when I go to the court I’m just practicing forehand, serves and just a couple of backhands, but not a 100 per cent yet,” he explained.
“I’m not going to lose time, taking a super coach for this moment, but maybe in the future, if I could solve my wrist problem and I’m still 100 per cent, it would be great for me, because it’s a great experience to share moments with these coaches…
“I’m starting to feel better, my wrist is starting to respond as I expected a couple of months ago and in the future I will try to make a good team to stay together for a few years.”
Del Potro had opted out of playing the French Open, preferring to make his grand slam return at Wimbledon because on grass “I can play more slices, I can serve-and-volley and for my wrist that’s much better.”
He won an Olympic bronze medal here at the All England Club in 2012 and is a former Wimbledon semi-finalist but he wasn’t always that comfortable on grass.
“The first time I played on grass I felt horrible, as every Argentinean player does,” he said with a laugh.
Djokovic, the last player Del Potro faced at Wimbledon, has done incredible things on tour in the Argentine’s absence, dominating the sport and taking his grand slam tally to 12 majors, including the last four in a row.
“I’m so happy for him because he’s a friend of mine and he deserves all these tournaments,” Del Potro said of the Serbian world No1.
“He’s playing great and he’s on a good way to get closer to Roger (Federer) and Rafa (Nadal) and he’s working really hard. And when you work hard and you’re doing everything perfect, the results come. He deserves it and I wish him all the best because he’s making tennis more exciting at the moment because Roger and Rafa are a little down than always and he’s taking the opportunity to win all the tournaments.”
Del Potro credits his family and friends for helping him stay positive throughout his ordeal. Asked if he consulted with psychologist, he says: “I spoke with everybody. But the most important thing was to stay close to my family and friends. They supported me every day…
“I’m here because of that and because of them too we are enjoying more tennis than the past for sure and I would like to say thank you to them because I’m here because they were behind me and never left me alone and never let me quit tennis.”
Del Potro’s approach to his return to the sport sounds more like a trial period, than an actual planned out comeback. He may have posted some decent results and beaten some good players like Dominic Thiem and Gilles Simon over the past four months, but he remains cautious in his aspirations.
“I would like to do that (set goals and make plans), but it’s not easy, I cannot make a long schedule because I’m going day by day,” he says.
“Every day I start with my treatments on the wrist and after that if I feel good I go to the court and practice and play tournaments.
“But now I’m starting to think more about tournaments, more about tennis things, and not about doctors or treatments or weeks to stop.
“And that will be my real life in tennis and I would like to play the summer in America, then the Asia tournaments because I had great results there and my biggest challenge would be to be 100 per cent for the end of the year to be ready for the next season.”
Milos Raonic will head into Wimbledon 2016 with two grand slam winning coaches in his corner, having added John McEnroe to a team already containing Carlos Moya for the grass-court season.
Raonic is just the latest player on the circuit to team up in recent times with big name players of the past. Boris Becker is working with current World No. 1 Novak Djokovic, Michael Chang with Japanese star Kei Nishikori and, famously, Ivan Lendl has rejoined team Andy Murray over the past month.
Sport360 takes a look at some of the big-name ‘super coaches’ who will be in attendance this Wimbledon fortnight.