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An Arab springboard for success

By Callum Tennent, for CNN
July 29, 2012 -- Updated 1201 GMT (2001 HKT)
  • Jaziri is the only Arab representative in the men's singles Olympic draw
  • During last year's revolution in Tunisia, Jaziri rose almost 200 places in the rankings
  • This summer saw him play his first match in the Wimbledon main draw
  • He is now sponsored by the Tunisian Minister of Tourism, and is an ambassador for the nation

(CNN) -- These are tumultuous times for Tunisian tennis player Malek Jaziri.

The 28-year-old might be the only player from an Arab country in the men's draw at the Olympics, but his first-round win over Yen-Hsun Lu 7-6, 4-6. 6-3 has once more showcased the Tunisian's remarkable powers of perseverance in the face of injury and political turmoil in his homeland.

Professionally Jaziri has never looked back since the Tunisian revolution, which sparked the region's Arab Spring and toppled the regime of Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali..

At the start of the revolution Jaziri was ranked 342nd; by the end of 2011 he was up to 150th; and now, following this week's release of the latest rankings, the Tunisian has climbed to 67th after recording his first win at Wimbledon.

"I decided to come back from living in Barcelona to practise," Jaziri told CNN, as he recalled the events that led to Ben Ali's fall. "The weather is always good and I was close to my family -- then one week after I got back, the revolution happened. It wasn't easy, but it made me feel better, and my ranking got better.

With my knee, I was sat at home unable to do anything. I said I would quit and work with my father in the family business. But then I took my last chance in Paris...and thank God for that
Malek Jaziri

"At first it was very hard to practize and to travel to play. The airport was closed, there were helicopters and shooting. But now it's safe, everyone is feeling good. I'm an ambassador for Tunisia and it is my source de l'inspiration. We have history, the desert, the sea, it's like a paradise, really."

Docteur, Docteur

Jaziri's rise up the rankings is even more remarkable given he missed two years through injury at the age of 22 -- a time when most players are establishing themselves professionally.

"A few years ago when I was young, I was very promising, going very well, 200th in the rankings, being put forward for Grand Slams, and then I had an accident. I injured my knee and I couldn't play.

"I spent the first year here in Tunisia with my family, but my knee wasn't doing so well. I told my family that I would take one last chance going to Europe. I went there, saw a French doctor, and after nine months I was running again. It was a very, very tough time for me though."

But a spate of injuries -- he also hurt his ankle and wrist -- badly affected Jaziri's confidence.

"It's true, I didn't get given much of a chance with injuries -- it was not easy for me. With my knee, I was sat at home unable to do anything. I said I would quit and work with my father in the family business. But then I took my last chance in Paris...and thank God for that."

It is not just the intervention of a Parisian doctor that provides fond memories of the French capital for Jaziri, who was born in the Tunisian city of Bizerte.

"During the war Roland Garros crashed his plane in Bizerte, the town where I play," said Jaziri, referring to the renowned French pilot, who was a keen tennis player and whom the stadium that hosts the French Open was named after.

"They made a monument here for him. Eighty per cent of clubs in Tunisia have clay courts and everyone watches Roland Garros. So far I've played two Grand Slams, and in Roland Garros I won the first round, I'm very happy."

Carrying the hopes of a nation

Since the start of the Arab Spring in Tunisia, Malek Jaziri has risen almost 300 places in the men's tennis rankings.

As well as his recent Grand Slam achievements, Jaziri is making the most of his Olympic experience, particularly given he needed a wildcard to enter the tournament.

Defending Olympic gold

"I had just finished my first match at Wimbledon when they told me that I had made the main draw in the Olympics. To win my first match at Wimbledon and then to have the chance to play at the Olympics was fantastic, I was twice as happy."

Flyover: Wimbledon Tennis Club

"I thank the ITF for giving me the wildcard to play at the Olympic Games, it's very important for me. I'm very proud to play for my country, for Tunisia, and I hope to do good things.

Why Federer's friend is flying the Swiss flag at London

"It's a very tough sensation to explain, when you hear the anthem of your country from on the podium. And I'm not just representing my country at the games but also all African and Arabic countries -- I can feel their support, it's like a dream for me."

Going solo

It's not just revolution and injury that Jaziri has had to overcome. Earlier in his career he was even having to book his own hotels and train tickets as well as having to apply to enter tournaments.

"At first I didn't have the chance to get a coach or staff. In the beginning it was tough, travelling alone, but then it becomes like a habit -- you're always alone so you learn to take responsibility. I had to do everything myself. It's a lot of small things, but it takes up a lot of time."

But his new-found success has brought sponsorship and that has enabled Jaziri to hire a coach and a fitness trainer, which perhaps explains his progression up the tennis ladder.

"I'm the new ambassador of tourism for Tunisia, the Minister of Tourism sponsors me," added Jaziri. "I would welcome everyone to Tunisia, it can be a second home to anyone. We have freedom and safety now. It will be very nice to promote Tunisia all around the world. The Olympics is a dream for everyone, and I will be a part of it."

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