Men and women together, they are 224 participants in the French Open qualifications to dream every year of the journey of Younes El Aynaoui, just twenty years ago, in 1995. That year, the Moroccan managed to pull out and play the knockout stages of the big table. From the line 9 of the Paris metro, stop Michael Angelo Molitor, to the Suzanne Lenglen court against Andre Agassi; let’s go back on a tournament played with great strides.
There was an atmosphere of joyful pandemonium in the first week of Roland Garros 1995, starting in the alleys and stands – including the presidential - where handball fans, party animals recently sacred first handball world champions, took care of showing far too quiet spectators to their liking what "real" fans singing were like. Playing on the court 10 on the first Monday, the same day than the yammerers gang, Mats Wilander said: "So much noise, I had never seen anything like that elsewhere than in Davis Cup!" On the courts also, it was a great mess, with qualified players clearly inspired after playing their pre-tournament on site, rather than at the nearby Jean Bouin stadium: Mikael Tillstrom eliminated Goran Ivanisevic, World No. 4, in the first round, Andrew Ilie took care of Richard Krajicek, No. 15, and Gerard Solves even managed to lead a set and a break against the Scarecrow of tournament, Thomas Muster, in his opening match. At the end of the first week, they were three heroes of the "qualifications" still in the race: the Romanian Adrian Voinea, the Australian Scott Draper and the Moroccan Younes El Aynaoui.
Tall, scrawny, 6 ft. 4 in., El Aynaoui was the first player from his country to reach the knockouts at Roland Garros. 48th in the ATP rankings a year earlier, he was back down to 224th place in the world rankings. "I had settled in a comfort zone," admitted the player, who when he was little, on the courts of the Moroccan Stadium of Rabat was dreaming "of becoming the new Ivan Lendl." Then, not to forget this childhood dream, "I pushed myself,” he explained. Upon arriving at Roland Garros that year, I didn't have any sponsor. “Royal Air Morocco offered me plane tickets for my travels. But for everything else, I had to be resourceful."
"The metro brought me luck, so I kept that little superstition"
In Paris, he avoided a ruinous week in a hotel by staying with some Moroccan friends who owned an apartment in the French capital. Every morning, he was getting his equipment and ran into the metro. Terminus: Michael Angelo Molitor station, the closest to the Roland Garros stadium. "At first, as I was there for the qualifications, and the tournament cars weren’t coming for players of the 'qualifications', I had no choice but to take the metro. And since, it brought me luck, I kept that little superstition and kept coming to Roland Garros in metro even when I played the big table."
For on the courts, the tournament turned into a fairy tale. He who, Challengers included, didn't pass any "cut" in tournaments' qualifications since the beginning of the year flew over those of Roland Garros: 7/5 6/2 against the Ukrainian Dmitri Polyakov, 6/1 6/1 against the New Zealander Steven Downs, and finally 6/3 6/2 against a player who would also experience an epic Parisian adventure thereafter, the Belgian Filip Dewulf. Taking advantage of a merciful draw in the main table, Younes El Aynaoui series continued his mad journey at the expense of a... lucky loser, Alex Lopez-Moron (7/5 6/3 6/3), the fast surfaces’ specialist Patrick McEnroe (6/2 6/1 6/3) and another player out of the qualifications, Andrew Ilie, who had just defeated Krajicek. A player ranked 224th in the ATP against a player ranked 256th: an unprecedented match of players with such low rankings in this stage of the competition in the French Open history. And the Moroccan won, 6/2 7/5 6/2. He was in the knockout stages and had not lost a single set in six games. The National Technical Director of the French Tennis Federation, Patrice Dominguez didn't know what to think: "He's tall, slender, with a big gun look which goes well with his first ball quality and a very good forehand. But I'm not sure that it will be enough in the next rounds: in the rallies, he will be dominated, and at the net, well we have no idea. We really don’t know what he's capable of. "
Agassi stronger than Maradona
Now in his third week of tournament, the matter could only become more complicated for Younes El Aynaoui, who had to face Andre Agassi. The public transports’ lover against the only tennis player always followed by an army of bodyguards: the clash of the worlds was striking. When asked about this curious opponent, the American had no other words than, "I don't know him, no." He didn't remember that he had already met the Moroccan, a few years earlier, while the latter was still a semi-pro who paid himself a training at the Nick Bollettieri academy in Florida, after many classes given to young kids in various tennis clubs. "Agassi arrived at ten o'clock one night. He was looking for a sparring partner and I was the only guy still there. We played a set, which he obviously won," remembers El Aynaoui, a year younger than the American star.
However, he didn’t look intimidated when the time came to challenge him at the French Open and all smiles, told reporters: "In Morocco, there’s only one star we love: Diego Maradona." But in 1995, Maradona was at the end of the road while Agassi was world number 1. As Patrice Dominguez expected, the game went one-way: 6/4 6/2 6/2: defeated, the adventure ended there for Younes El Aynaoui... At least temporarily. Often injured, he disappeared for a few years, before having his best seasons in his thirties, quarterfinals at the Australian Open (2000, 2003) and at the US Open (2002, 2003) with at the end a 14th place in the World for highest ranking. But even after getting so high, he would never beat Andre Agassi. Nor forget the map of the Paris metro.