El Aynaoui’s trip to Israel signifies sports' power

Sinai Says: Moroccan tennis star is sending a perfect message of how sports can render meaningless differences of both borders and religions.

MOROCCAN TENNIS STAR Younes El Aynaoui 370 (photo credit: REUTERS)
MOROCCAN TENNIS STAR Younes El Aynaoui 370
(photo credit: REUTERS)
The almost endless talk about promoting peace and co-existence between Israelis and Arabs through sports is all very nice and good.
However, it is the actions of top athletes such as Younes El Aynaoui that really make a difference.
As far as El Aynaoui is concerned, he is just doing a close friend a favor while having a good time.
But by coming to Israel for a week to train with young local players and give Israel Tennis Centers Professional Director Harel Levy some outside advice, El Aynaoui is sending a perfect message of how sports can render meaningless differences of both borders and religions.
The 41-year-old Moroccan reached a career-best tennis ranking of No. 14 in the world in March 2003, winning five ATP titles in an injury plagued career.
He became the oldest player since Jimmy Connors to win an ATP Tour match when he made a comeback to play in the Qatar Open three years ago and is perhaps best remembered for his 21- 19 fifth-set defeat to Andy Roddick in the quarterfinals of the Australian Open in 2003, at the time setting the record for the longest fifth set in Grand Slam history (since surpassed by the Wimbledon 2010 marathon between John Isner and Nicolas Mahut.) The Rabat native currently lives in France, but remains one of the most popular people in Morocco, receiving a gold medal – the nation’s highest sporting honor – from King Mohammed VI, with the center court of the Royal Tennis Club in Marrakech also being named after El Aynaoui.
Since being officially named as the professional director of the Israel Tennis Centers in December, Levy hasn’t left a stone unturned in his quest to maximize the local infrastructure, which currently totals 14 centers across the country and over 21,000 active participants.
Levy and El Aynaoui became friends on tour long ago, with the Moroccan sharing a special relationship with many Israeli players, including Eyal Ran, Noam Okun, Andy Ram and Yoni Erlich.
Levy asked El Aynaoui if he would be interested in coming to Israel to play with the country’s up-andcoming players and give the coaches some tips, while also advising his friend on what else could be done to improve the future of the local game.
El Aynaoui happily accepted the invitation and he has been very impressed with what he’s seen.
“I knew the facilities because I came here in 2003 for one month to practice with [Moroccan Davis Cup teammate] Hicham Arazi before the Australian Open, but I’m still really impressed,” El Aynaoui told me earlier this week.
“They have a psychologist, good coaches and the best conditions for juniors and the next generations.”
Despite the relative dearth in young Israeli talent of the highest level, El Aynaoui believes it won’t be long before local tennis has worthy successors to Dudi Sela and Shahar Pe’er.
“I’ve seen it with my eyes. I’ve been playing with all the young players and there’s a really good level between the ages of 12 and 18,” he said.
“It’s pure fun for me to be here and try and give them a hand to help raise some champions here.”
El Aynaoui currently runs a social project in Morocco, while also acting as an advisor to the Minister of Sports in his homeland.
El Aynaoui is hoping for a greater cooperation between Israeli and Moroccan tennis and sees no reason why sports can’t be used as a platform for better relations between Israelis and Arabs.
“I grew up in the sports world so we are very far away from all the outside problems,” he said. “These are not my pretensions. However, I hope that people will understand that we all get along in the sports family and that they shouldn’t interfere.”
El Aynaoui is happy he accepted Levy’s invite and is hoping to help him make “something good even better”.
Although he believes expectations in Israel are slightly too high.
“The tennis world is very small,” he explained.
“There is a place for very few players. You have nations like England with a Grand Slam tournament and also thousands of people playing tennis and they are struggling and only have Andy Murray.
“There are a lot of countries that have this problem.”
With Pe’er and Sela floundering and Ram and Erlich entering the twilight of their career, it is easy to feel discouraged regarding the state of the local game.
However, El Aynaoui has little doubt that Israeli tennis is moving in the right direction.
“Hard work always pays and that is what they are doing here,” he said. “They don’t miss any details here so I’m sure the results will come.
“I think Israeli tennis has a bright future. I’ve seen some kids who have something and if they have the opportunity and resources, I think in the future we will see good players from Israel.”
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