Arazi hopes to conjure a slice of luck

Click to follow
The Independent Online

They may call him the "little magician", but there was nothing Hicham Arazi could do about the appalling weather yesterday. His scheduled match against Tim Henman was always doomed from the moment the gates were opened, and the two men will now have to cancel their plans for a family Sunday lunch to try again today.

The extra day's rest will do both men, who were playing their respective second-round matches on Friday, no harm, although they would obviously have preferred to play yesterday. "It's very frustrating on a day like this," Arazi said, "because you come in and never really know what's happening. You just sit around and wait."

At least the supporters should be handsomely rewarded for their patience, as this will be the ultimate meeting of styles. Henman, the serve and volleyer, versus Arazi, the bag of baseline tricks; Henman, the right-hander, versus Arazi, the leftie; and, perhaps most importantly of all from a British point of view, Henman, the grass-court specialist, versus Arazi, the man for the red stuff.

"It's going to be a clash of mentalities," Arazi said, "but that's what makes tennis fun. It would be such a boring sport if we were all rushing up to the net and playing in the same way as each other. It's going to be tough against Tim, because he is such a natural on the grass, but I have a chance."

Arazi's overall record against Henman is not particularly impressive, having lost eight of their 11 matches, including a third round defeat in straight sets at Wimbledon four years ago. That said, the last two meetings have gone the way of the Moroccan, albeit on the clay of Monte Carlo in 2001 and then Casablanca in 2003. "The last win meant the most to me," Arazi said of the 6-4 6-4 7-6 defeat in the Davis Cup tie that relegated Great Britain from the World Group. "It was a special moment for me and the whole of my country."

Today, it should be a case of different surface, different result. "Grass is not as easy a surface for me because I cannot be as unpredictable," Arazi said. "Putting spin on the ball or using the angles is a lot more complicated at Wimbledon because the ball travels so much quicker. It's going to be a big ask."

Arazi's entire tennis life has been a challenge. Born to poor parents in Casablanca, he was moved to the Parisian suburb of the Yvelines at the age of two. It was there, at the tennis club of Saint-Remy-les-Chevreuse, where his father was a janitor, that he first picked up a racket. "I threw him his first ever ball," Mohamed Arazi recalled recently, "and he instinctively played a back-hand. I immediately turned to his mother and told her that Hicham would be a great player."

It was not long before Arazi senior had swapped the mop and bucket for a racket and bucket, of balls this time. For his part, the young Arazi was never far away from his dad. "As we lived in a dodgy area," he said, "I spent as much time as possible at the club. Before long, I was playing lots."

The hard work eventually paid off as Arazi turned professional in 1993 and has since reached two Grand Slam quarter-finals. Now 30, he is no longer coached by his father, having turned to the former French player Thierry Champion. But Mohamed remains close to the action. "He was not a tennis dad," Hicham said, "and he never came along to matches to put me under any kind of pressure. But he's around and always prepared to give me good advice. That's important when you travel around the world so much."

Wherever he goes, Arazi is viewed as an artist, the Henri Leconte of his generation. Such comparisons also suggest that the Moroccan is a mercurial talent, someone who shines as unpredictably as the Wimbledon sun. "That's probably a fair assessment of me," he said, "but I kind of like that to be honest. I mean, I always knew I was unlikely to win a Grand Slam, so at least I am leaving some sort of imprint on the game.

Being the whacky under-dog suits me fine." All the better, really, because Henman will be the overwhelming favourite today. "I am under no illusions," Arazi said, "but with some hard work and a bit of azhar [luck] you never know." He paused. "Actually, make that a lot of azhar."