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.”