Ranked No. 104, Tunisian Malek Jaziri is the top Arab player in the world. (AFP/Getty Images)
That the Dubai Duty Free Tennis Championships, a 32-man draw boasting eight of the top 10 players in the world, chose to award a main draw wildcard to a player ranked No. 869 might have gone relatively unnoticed. That it did so by a last-minute snub of the top Arab player in the world, Malek Jaziri, ranked No. 104, definitely raised some eyebrows. But when Mr. 869 shares the same last name as the tournament's defending champion and reigning No. 1, the decision becomes particularly newsworthy.
Tournament officials informed Jaziri, the top Arab player hailing from Tunisia, that they would not be granting him a main draw wildcard a mere 14 hours before qualifying was set to begin on Saturday. Jaziri said he had been told that he would not have to play qualifying, but tournament officials awarded the wildcard to Novak Djokovic's younger brother, Marko Djokovic, instead. Jaziri won his first round of qualifying before losing to Andrey Golubev on Sunday.
“I have no problem playing qualifying rounds, my tennis speaks for itself, but where is the respect for the player?” Jaziri told Sport360. “Finding out the night before that I have to play the next morning, that is not right. In Europe, the countries’ federations help their own players, as the No. 1 Arab player, I expected a little bit more.”
Tournament officials made no secret that they awarded the younger Djokovic the wildcard out of nepotism and they've had a history of doing so. Sergey Bubka Jr., son of the famous pole vaulter and currently Victoria Azarenka's boyfriend, was given a wildcard as well. To his credit, he made it through qualifying last year in Dubai and made the Round of 16. That can't be said of young Marko this year. He lost his opening-round match against Andrey Golubev (that's right, the same Golubev who beat Jaziri in qualifying) on Monday, 6-3, 6-2, in a match that was played on Center Court.
“Marko Djokovic is important to us because he is the brother of the No.1 player in the world," tournament director and Dubai Duty Free Senior Vice President of Corporate Communications Salah Tahlak explained. "So that helps us, automatically. As a tournament we have other things to take into consideration.”
Djokovic's family put in the wildcard request over a month ago and Novak said he was unaware that the wildcard that eventually went to his brother had been promised to another player. Tournaments make these decisions every week and questions of marketability, agency and tournament relations often trump pure merit. It would be naive to pretend otherwise. But to snub your own guy in favor of a kid who has yet to establish himself in any meaningful way on the Tour is particularly short-sighted. Malek had a chance this week to become only the fourth Arab to crack the Top 100 and the first to do so in eight years, and he could have done it at the biggest tournament in the Middle East (which happens to also be celebrating its 20th anniversary).
Reem Abulleil, a sports reporter for Sport360 in UAE, wrote an op-ed piece on the tournament's decision. Here's an excerpt:
It’s quite clear where the tournament’s priorities are at and frankly, it’s plain sad. We wonder why there are no top Arab players in tennis, and then we witness situations like this, where a professional and dedicated Tunisian has managed to shoot his way through the rankings with as little support as one can get; he’s qualified for a Grand Slam and won his first-round match; he’s won a Challenger title and countless Futures and he was two points away from beating Jo-Wilfried Tsonga in Doha last month.
In short, he’s proved himself with every chance he’s got - but still none of that was suffice to warrant him a spot in the main draw in Dubai. If our very own tournaments are not giving our players the necessary support, then who will?
The Tours like to talk about how putting tournaments in the Middle East is a way to grow the sport in a region that doesn't have much history in tennis. But if the tournaments aren't supporting their local players then the only things growing are the pocketbooks of those involved.