"That's the kind of match that doesn't trifle with love." Those are Jim Courier's words. He speaks here about the quarterfinals of the 2003 Australian Open opposing Andy Roddick and Younes El Aynaoui. One of the most beautiful love stories in the history of tennis. Sweat, generosity, tension, complicity, hugs, humour and booming serves: the story of a marriage celebrating its 10th anniversary today.
The Iraq war. On the phone and reminiscing about his quarter-final at the Australian Open, against Andy Roddick, it's the first memory that comes to Younes El Aynaoui’s mind. What's the relation between the third Gulf war and this legendary duel? "This game took place in 2003: the beginning of the Gulf War. I’m Arab and my coach, Jeff Tarango, was American. Roddick, on the other hand, was an American coached by a Franco-Algerian, Tarik Benhabiles. Do you understand? I've never really talked about it, but I thought it was quite unusual,” he says by way of an introduction. “It’s the Americans who declared war against Iraq. I live in Morocco, and then, we felt that there was a becoming more dangerous indeed." More than the memory of a veteran, the Australian battlefield opposed two personalities. But not so different finally: the athletic fierceness of Younes El Aynaoui, 31, with half-curly, half-dreadlocked hair, and Andy Roddick, the young buck with the “preppy” look, eleven years his junior. "In fact, we hardly ever talked before the game. Or just greeted from afar,” confesses the Moroccan. “I thought it was a good draw to play a guy with no experience. It was obvious to everybody: he had a lot of tics! He was very nervous. He may be a bit frustrating to watch but he was quite a gentleman on the court". For his part, Roddick agrees: "I don’t think that I've actually talked to Younes. But if in ten years we meet again, we will be able to say that we shared a really special moment."
The ball boys' game
Fifth set. The scoreboard was showing a score of 19 games all. The cool air of Melbourne's central court in the night was invigorating. It was almost midnight. "It was a night session,” says Younes. “The worst thing is that after our game, there was a doubles match scheduled. The guys were waiting in the dressing rooms. It must have been awful for them." Exhausted after serving fourteen times to stay in the match, Roddick then allowed himself a short break... "It was my turn to serve - I was very focused - and at the moment of tossing the ball, I saw Roddick, sitting down and giving his racket to a ball boy. So I turned around and did the same thing. Both ball boys then played one or two balls for fun, it lasted three/four minutes and then he made the break on this game. I have never thought that he did that knowingly (laughs)." The moment was absolutely surreal. The joke turned into mass hysteria. Naturally, the public was ecstatic: "The atmosphere was crazy. Thanks to the ball boys, I had a few minutes to look around me and think 'But where am I? I'm not on a normal tennis court,” says Younes. “Then I looked up, I saw all those Moroccan spectators in the stadium, my national flag floating in the air and red hats, fez. It’s at that exact moment that I realized the magnitude of the game."
Sweat, hugs and a world record
It must be said that this last set was a perfect finale to the epic storyline of this game. One hour and fifty-three minutes earlier, at 10:56 pm, El Aynaoui already missed an opportunity to conclude the set 6/4. Half an hour later, Roddick served for the match at 11-10. The service quality of both players was impressive - Roddick won 80% of his first serves, El Aynaoui won 79% of his. Most exchanges were finished on winners. Andy treated the audience with diving winners. Younes responded with exquisite drop-shots and passing-shots at full speed. "That's a little like playing against a mirror" he says, mixing the novel aspect of this kind of confrontation, the physical and mental wear, the faces of the 15,000 spectators, the nerves, the sweat, the fair play and the generosity and "some incredible points out of the blue." Despite a few emptier, doubtful and a little less beautiful shots, inherent to marathon games, the players held on to each other, as if they didn’t want to leave. This part went far beyond them two. It didn't belong to them any more. Worse, the laws of mathematics collapsed: "In tennis, you always have a winner and a loser. A happy guy and a sad guy. But then you had two men who were smiling after playing a great game." After nearly five hours of play, Andy Roddick, finally screamed his deliverance, winning the last round 21-19. A record in the Open era (since broken by Isner and Mahut at Wimbledon in 2010), as no one had ever reached 40 games in the fifth set. "Under a standing ovation, we fell into each other arms. No need for words: a great sigh and you hold the other with whole the strength you have left!”
" I hope people won't confuse me for James Blake anymore."
Back in the dressing rooms, the coaches, the physiotherapists, even John McEnroe, who came down from his commentator’s box for the occasion - "and who would become my friend that day" - all congratulated El Aynaoui on his performance. He, however, was already gone. "In fact, the idea of thinking that I just played one of the greatest matches in tennis history, it took me some time to come back down to Earth. When friends call you and say, 'Yeah, we saw you the other day on ESPN Classic in the US’, it’s still a little strange. You know, ESPN is like a little grail for every tennis player." Internet, television, and press clippings best of: more than a good memory, this game is for him a fabulous spotlight. "I even heard some people say "Yeah, I saw a young player in Australia the other day, he's pretty good", whereas I had been on the tour for 10 years at this point". Today’s young retiree, Andy Roddick, said he that night marked his "coming-of-age", his first taste of life at the highest level. Now an activist, sporting director of the Erfurter tennis club in Germany and political advisor to the Moroccan Minister of Sports, Younes, meanwhile, remembers a moment of romance, late and unexpected "from a media point of view", and one of the most beautiful memories of his career. “Now, at least, I hope people won't confuse me for James Blake anymore."
By Victor Le Grand