Younes El Aynaoui, a 30-year-old Moroccan who relishes the challenge of carrying the pride of Arabian tennis on his slender shoulders, will attempt today to add the £1m Dubai Open Championship to the title he won in Doha at the start of the year.
The rangy competitor from Rabat reached the final here last night by defeating Thomas Johansson of Sweden, the Australian Open champion and current leader of the ATP Champions' Race, 7-6, 4-6, 6-3 in a tight and emotional contest.
Johansson, who had denied Britain a place in the second round of the Davis Cup world group last month by defeating Greg Rusedski in the fifth rubber, showed the fiery side of his nature for which he was penalised a point during the final set. Frustrated by the inefficiency of his serve and angered by a series of doubtful calls, chiefly on the baselines, Johansson was given a code violation after lobbing a ball into the Royal Box after losing a break of serve in the fourth game. The ball hit a female spectator.
The Swede then compoun-ded this offence by breaking a racket after losing his serve again for 2-4. This led to El Aynaoui being awarded the opening point on the seventh game, which he held 5-2. "I've never been given a point penalty before," Johansson said, accepting that the umpire had no option. The Swede threw his racket several times during the match and was lucky it did not break sooner. "Some of the calls were really bad, but it was from both sides," Johansson said. "These kind of things happen. He had some tough calls, I had some tough calls. I was serving terribly, and he was able to run round my serve and hit his forehand. Younes has the best forehand in the world, and I wasn't able to go for his backhand as much as I needed to."
The players' concentration was not helped in the opening set by a Dubai Shopping Festival fireworks display nearby and the noise of a crowd watching the rugby international between France and England on a large screen in the Irish theme village at the side of the stadium. Johansson and Tim Henman played through the firecrackers on Friday night, when the Swede lost the first four games and then won nine in a row en route to winning 6-4, 6-3.
"The fireworks are a little bit disturbing," said El Aynaoui, who was also upset by a shout from a spectator early in the final set and strode to the back of the court demanding to know what had been said. "I thought I heard something not very nice," El Aynaoui revealed after the match.
There were fears that El Aynaoui would become the latest player not to finish a match when he took an injury time-out to receive treatment to his lower back after losing his serve in the third game of the final set.
He returned to the fray and immediately broke Johansson for 2-2 to set up a thrilling finale. "I don't think he was hurt that bad," Johansson said. "When he came back he was running more."
Last year Johansson lost in the semi-finals to Marat Safin, even though the Russian was troubled by a lower back injury which subsequently forced him to retire during the final against Juan Carlos Ferrero of Spain. "My back feels good now," El Aynaoui said after his victory last night. "It was a little bit stiff because I have played a lot of tennis this week. I'm sure I'll be ready for the final."
El Aynaoui's opponent will be Fabrice Santoro, who is also unseeded. The Frenchman defeated Jiri Novak, of the Czech Republic, 5-7, 6-3, 7-6.Reuse content