Magic Of Morocco: Arazi & El Aynaoui Recall 'Dream Weeks' In Casablanca
Morrocan stars remember their title runs
It is a dream of every player to win a title on home soil, and it was in the late 1990s that Morocco had three world-class players: Younes El Aynaoui, Karim Alami and Hicham Arazi, who all experienced unforgettable weeks to reach the Grand Prix Hassan II final.
While El Aynaoui (1993) and Alami (1994) had come close to victory in Casablanca, when the ATP 250 tournament was held there (1990-2015), it was current Tournament Director Arazi who first lifted the silverware in 1997, in front of the King of Morocco, Hassan II.
With chants of “Hicham, Hicham” echoing around the Complexe Al Amal stadium, World No. 56 Arazi beat Argentina’s Franco Squillari 3-6, 6-1, 6-2 for one of the biggest moments of his career.
“It was crazy, a magical week,” Arazi told ATPTour.com. “There were so many people outside waiting to come in, there wasn’t any space in the stadium. When I won match point with a forehand winner, I kissed up to the sky. I was 23, at the beginning of my career, but I was relieved. The most difficult part is to win it. You want to play your best tennis and there is a lot of pressure.
“My confidence started to grow the previous year, when I won three ATP Challenger Tour tournaments. A friend gave me a record of the whole 1997 final just a few days ago, and when I see my face, I was happy, but it was a strange feeling. I enjoy it now, as the Tournament Director [of the Grand Prix Hassan II] for the past five years, because I realise what it meant, more than when I was a player.
“I was not living in Morocco, but I was living in France. I was away 30-35 weeks of the year on Tour, but when I won it was crazy. Everyone recognised me, I enjoyed that night and partied with my friends. It was a strange feeling. I was known, but not considered good enough to win the tournament. It was a big change and from that moment the support of Moroccans hasn’t stopped. Even today, in support of Karim, Younes and myself. They remember.”
It would take 1993 runner-up El Aynaoui a further nine years of trying, before he was able to capture the Grand Prix Hassan II trophy. His 3-6, 6-3, 6-2 victory over defending champion Guillermo Canas in the 2002 final came during an Indian summer for the 31-year-old. In a two-year period, between 2001 and 2002, El Aynaoui won four ATP Tour titles from eight finals.
“I enjoyed playing in Casablanca, but one of my fondest memories came when I was 400 or 500 in the world and I was granted a wild card,” El Aynaoui told ATPTour.com. “I beat Thomas Muster on an outside court in the  second round. When you have a stop at home, there is nothing better. It was always a special week and very important.
“In the 1993 final against Guillermo Perez-Roldan [lost 6-4, 6-3], I was very nervous and it’s something that always stayed with me. I can say it now, but I did struggle in big matches, like finals. But I made a big push late in my career. It took time to organise and have the correct staff: a physical coach, physio and my whole family were travelling with me. It was a reward for many years of effort, not giving up, and I achieved what I’d been fighting for since the age of 16 or 17.”
“The 2002 final against Willy [Canas] was enormous as there were perhaps 7,000-8,000 people in the stadium. It was three tough sets and a lot of help and energy from the crowd, but it is perhaps the best moment of my career.”
El Aynaoui would rise to a career-high No. 14 in the FedEx ATP Rankings on 11 March 2003, shortly prior to a third Casablanca final (l. to Julien Boutter) appearance in April that year.
Today, El Aynaoui supports young talent, while Arazi has become a highly experienced Tournament Director in Marrakech, where the event has been held since 2016.
“Being a Tournament Director is great,” says Arazi, who would rise to a career-high No. 22 on 5 November 2011. “When you play, you don’t see the work that the Tournament Director and his staff undertake. Tennis is an individual sport, it’s difficult to get to this level and you need to have a very selfish mentality. A tennis player must enjoy the time, because it goes so fast. They should practice as hard as they could. They are lucky to have the experience of travelling around the world.
"When I retired, I started to think how lucky I’d been. Casablanca in 1997 was a magical week.”