El Aynaoui aiming to bury Britain in Moroccan clay

Henman and Rusedski face an obdurate competitor in attempt to avoid Davis Cup relegation

So much has changed. Bob Hope, Bing Crosby and Dorothy Lamour are no longer on the road, and the "Morocco -bound" Webster's dictionary is online.

So much is the same. Britain's Davis Cup team will be on the road from here to goodness knows where unless Tim Henman and Greg Rusedksi are able to sand-dance well enough over the next three days to secure a place in the World Group and avoid relegation to the Euro-African zone. But at least this location is different, though not as evocative as the name suggests.

Noticing that Younes El Aynaoui, who, along with Hicham Arazi, plans to bury Henman and Rusedski up to their necks in the clay, was wearing a "Rock the Kasbah" T-shirt, your correspondent asked if he had ever seen the film Casablanca.

"I never saw it," said the tall 32-year-old from Rabat, who now lives in Barcelona, "but I don't think it was done in Casablanca, Morocco. I talked to some people who saw the movie and they told me it was not made in Casablanca."

Correct. Wartime conditions made filming on location impossible, so the romantic story featuring Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman was filmed in the Los Angeles area. Nonetheless, critics rate Casablanca among the greatest movies ever made. Arazi, who is 29, was born in Casablanca, though he is now part of the tennis set in Monte Carlo. Surely Arazi saw the film?

El Aynaoui smiled and shook his head: "I was in a shop with Hicham a couple of weeks ago and I said, 'Let's buy the DVD', and he went for something else."

Fine. So, how big is tennis in Morocco?

"The TV shows the matches, and every time I come back to Morocco I really feel that a lot of people are following tennis. Unfortunately, it's still an élite sport. Not everybody can play tennis."

Like in Britain?

El Aynaoui laughed. "No! No!"

The British tennis reporters chorused: "Yes! Yes!"

"No!" El Aynaoui insisted. "It used to be, like, 20 years ago. Now I think it's better. Golf, maybe, is élitist."

Remembering how obdurate this man can be - his marathon contest against the American Andy Roddick at the Australian Open in January was fought over five hours and 85 games, Roddick saving a match point before winning the fifth set, which lasted two hours 23 minutes - it seemed pointless to argue further.

Morocco's national governing body for tennis was originally known as the League of Moroccan Tennis and was affiliated to the French Tennis Federation. The Fédération Royale Marogaine de Tennis, founded in 1957, oversees 35,000 players and 110 clubs with a total of 500 courts, four of them indoors.

"The main sport in Morocco is soccer, like everywhere else," El Aynaoui said (ah, yes, Sir Alf Ramsey's "Moroccians"). "And there are the runners: Said Aouita, Hicham El Guerrouj. We have lots of people running at schools, at training camps, and in the Atlas Mountains."

El Aynaoui's passion for tennis did not impress his family. "My father works for the minister of finance and my mum works for French Embassy," he said. "When I decided to turn pro my father was not happy. I had to go against him. It was risky. I was not that good. There were no pros in Morocco. I did my own thing, and in the first two or three years it was tough.

"My father did not help me at start. I went to the [Nick] Bollettieri academy [in Florida] and was half-player, half-teacher. In morning I could practise and in afternoon I would feed balls to players. I could practise for free all day and work at night there. I was 19 and I would look after the kids there, check their rooms, drive the bus at weekends or clean the gym.

"The breakthrough came when I got a wild card in 1988 and played Thomas Muster in Casablanca. He was 20 in the world rankings and I beat him. I started to play better, and won a satellite tournament in Morocco."

El Aynaoui has won five ATP Tour singles titles, £3.9m in prize money, and reached a career-high world ranking of No 15, in May 2000. "My father has forgiven me," he said, "but he still worries and he does not come to matches. He gets stressed."

Having lost to France and Switzerland in recent Davis Cup ties played in Casablanca, El Aynaoui is looking forward to this weekend's event. "We saw the teams we might play and, tell you the truth, we wished we could play against Great Britain in Morocco," he said. "Not only do we have the chance to win, but also because it's a good experience for our country to receive one of the founding nations of the Davis Cup. My mother will come, my father, too. But as soon as I step on court he will go for a walk."

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