DUBAI // Tunisia's Malek Jaziri put up a valiant display as he fell to Roger Federer, the World No 2, on Monday night, yet the sight of an Arab wild card walking off court having been beaten in the opening round of the Dubai Duty Free Tennis Championships is nothing new to those who frequent the Aviation Club.
It is testament to the tournament organisers' desire to develop the game that since the city's first ATP event in 1993, at least one Arab player has represented the region in the final draw each year.
There are few signs, however, that such players will soon be appearing on merit rather than wild cards.
In Dubai's 21 tournaments, the Middle East and North Africa has been represented 31 times by seven different players from four different countries.
Twenty three of these appearances have ended in first-round exits and more than two thirds of these ended in straight-sets defeats.
Jaziri, the Arab world's top-ranked player at No 128 said on Monday: "For me was great to play today against Roger. I take a lot of pleasure and a lot of fun."
The 29 year old, who was defeated 5-7, 6-0,6-2 by the 17-time major winner, had not played a match on the ATP Tour for six months and fitness became an issue.
"I tried to do my best today," he said. "[It] was very tough match. It's my first match after a few months, so was not ready physically today. I knew it before the match. I try to make the points to be shorter.
"I give everything today. I tried to play – you know, when you don't play a lot of matches since Moscow last year, [at the] end of the year I didn't play so much and didn't practice too so much."
Despite the defeat Jaziri drew comfort from the support he had at the Aviation Club.
"I would like to thank all the Tunisians and all the Arabic people, their support me today. Was a lot of fun to play here. I take so much pleasure," he said.
And he will take away some precious memories of his match with Federer. "I was happy to play Roger," he said."It was one of the things that I want to do it, you know, in my career to play – you know, it's nice when you play against [these] players, a legend."
Alison Lee, the executive vice-president of the ATP's International Group, which covers Asia, Australasia, Russia and the Middle East, appeared at a loss to explain the lack of development in the Middle East.
"The passion for the game is there, definitely, but when you look at the young up and coming players, there is a not the massive population," she told The National. "There are so many elements you need to bring together. Here you have players –and it's the same in Doha – but it's hard. Everyone is looking for the magic answer, but it's difficult."
The most successful Arab tennis player in history is Younes El Aynaoui, who made his debut in Dubai at the inaugural event and went on to compete at the Aviation Club 10 times in total.
Were it not for the Moroccan's admirable achievements in the emirate – he progressed to the final in 2002 – the statistics for Arab involvement would make for even less enjoyable reading.
Tournament organisers have given 15 wild cards to players from the Arabian Gulf since 2001, yet only Mohammed Al Ghareeb of Kuwait has managed to avoid a straight-sets defeat.
In 2004, 2007 and 2009 he pushed his opponent to three sets and in 2006, having been drawn against another wild card in the form of the UAE No 1 Omar Awadhy, he progressed to the second round 7-6, 6-2.
Awadhy, one of two Emirati representatives to play in Dubai, has received nine wild cards for his home tournament since 2001, but was under no illusions last year when he spoke of the challenge of being drawn against players ranked inside the top 100.
"At the beginning, I used to put a lot of pressure on myself," said Awadhy, who has in nine years never won a set.
"With time, you realise, you know, what can you do? I can't refuse the wild card. At the same time, I'm realistic enough to say that these guys are much better than me. They're much, much better than me. I don't care if it's 6-0, 6-0 or 6-4, 7-5. They're much better and that's a fact."
The 31 year old last year questioned why organisers continued to invite him. This year, they did not offer him a wild card and he lost his qualifying match with Marco Chiudinelli of Switzerland 3-6,5-7.
Lee, an Australian, said she looks to her own country as proof that all is not lost in the Middle East region.
"In Australia, we have a small population, but we have managed to produce some great champions," she said. "You never know when someone will come forward with a great passion to play, a big heart and a great talent. There is no shortage of support."
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