Moez Echargui on realising Olympic dream, meeting his hero and making Tunisia proud

Late bloomer looking to make the most of his opportunity when he enters Roland Garros for the first time during the Paris Games

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Most aspiring tennis players grow up dreaming of making it to one of the four grand slams or competing in the tour’s other big events like the Masters 1000s in Indian Wells or Rome or Monte Carlo.

The Olympics is not necessarily the first item on a tennis player’s bucket list but when the opportunity comes around to join the best athletes on the planet and fight for a medal for your country, perspective shifts fast and the Games become the most important event on your calendar.

That’s been the case for Tunisia’s Moez Echargui, who at 31 years old, has qualified for his first Olympics and is getting ready for what will arguably be the highlight of his career in Paris this summer.

Currently ranked 342 in the world, Echargui punched his ticket to Paris by clinching gold at the African Games in Accra, Ghana, two months ago. He only got the call to go to Accra two weeks prior to the event and hadn’t put too much thought into it going in.

He then proceeded to win six consecutive matches, knocking out Egypt's veteran Olympian Mohamed Safwat in the semi-finals and Zimbabwe’s Benjamin Lock in the gold medal match, to officially qualify for the Olympics.

“Everything happened so fast, so I didn't really expect it,” Echargui told The National in an interview via Zoom.

“To be honest, I never thought about it, like even when I started in tennis. The Olympics for tennis, it seems like a really long way to get there. It’s played once every four years and I never had the idea to qualify or to be at the Olympics because for us as tennis players we have other tournaments to be goals, like the Slams or the Masters. Those are the main objectives to get there. But the Olympics, I feel like it's a whole other sphere.”

Those feelings quickly changed as Echargui navigated the draw at the African Games and realised the Olympics weren’t so farfetched after all.

“I feel like what an achievement, you know, for it to be my first African Games, first medal, and first qualifying for the Olympics. it's like hitting three in one shot. I cannot be more grateful and happy about it,” he said.

“It's such a privilege to get to go to Paris and be with all the best athletes from all over the world.”

The experience in Africa was special for Echargui, who enjoyed being part of the Tunisian delegation, interacting with his compatriots from other sports. The tennis tournament was tough, with matches played in humid conditions and temperatures that soared over 35º Celsius and opponents who were all hungry to secure an Olympic spot.

Representing his country and being the No 2 seed in the draw placed some added pressure on Echargui’s shoulders but he found support and comfort in team captain Malek Jaziri, a two-time Olympian and a retired player who achieved the highest ranking by any Tunisian man in tennis.

“With his experience and what he did on the tour, he helped us to go through those tough moments in Ghana,” Echargui said of Jaziri.

The one stipulation for an African Games champion to compete in Paris is to be ranked inside the top 400 by June 10, which is the cut-off date for the Olympics tennis entry list to be finalised. Echargui is guaranteed to make it given he has enough ranking points to keep him in the top 400 until then.

In the meantime, he has been travelling through Asia competing in Challenger events and will be Europe-bound soon in order to train and play on clay.

The tennis competition at the Olympics will be staged at Roland Garros venue and for Echargui, it will be his first time competing there; he never played the French Open either as a junior or pro.

“It's going to be my first time at Roland Garros so that’s exciting as well,” he said. “And of course there is such a big community of Tunisians in Paris, and it’s a city that is very accessible to my family and friends, so hopefully there will be a lot of Tunisians there to support me. It’s going to be nice.”

Echargui is a big fan of track and field and names fellow Tunisians Habiba Ghribi, the 2012 Olympic champion in the 3,000m steeplechase, and Mohammed Gammoudi, the 1968 Olympic champion in the 5,000m, as two of his favourite athletes.

But if there’s one person Echargui would like to meet in Paris this summer, it’s not a track and field star but a fellow tennis player.

“He’s my favourite tennis player of all-time, Novak Djokovic. Hopefully over there I will get to meet him, practice with him, or maybe we'll play against each other. It would be like a dream come true to get this opportunity,” he said.

“Of course, because I have a wildcard for the Olympics, I'm probably going to be drawn against one of the top guys from the first rounds. So I'm just going to try to enjoy it and enjoy the process.

“Getting there is such a privilege but right now what I need to focus on is to actually enjoy the process of getting there and to prepare the best I can to be ready for Paris.”

Echargui picked up tennis later than most professionals, at the age of nine. Growing up in La Marsa, a coastal city 20km outside the capital Tunis, football was the main sport in the country and it was, interestingly, how Echargui got introduced to tennis.

He was playing football with his older brothers and was sent to fetch the ball after it went over a wall. There, Echargui came across some tennis courts and became curious about the game.

When he picked up a racquet for the first time at nearly 10 years old, he was told by his coaches that he was a natural.

“I remember the coaches didn’t believe me when I said I actually never played before and they were telling me, ‘No, no, you're coming to us from another club’,” he recalls.

Echargui was a promising junior and peaked at 125 in the world junior rankings as a teenager.

A knee injury sidelined him for his last two eligible years as a junior and due to financial constraints, he opted to go to college upon graduating from high school instead of turning pro at 18.

He played college tennis at University of Nevada, where he holds the joint record for most wins in the programme's history, and received a degree in computer science and mechanical engineering.

“I really enjoyed my years in the US,” he reflected. “I honestly don't regret going there.”

Echargui says people often question whether he should have achieved more in the sport already, given his age, but considering he turned pro later than most, after playing college tennis for five years, he feels he still has many years ahead of him.

“Of course I feel the pressure of age sometimes, because when you're looking at the tour you see all these young guys, 20 years old, 18 years old, and they're there and you feel like a senior,” says Echargui, who is currently based in Milan training at the MXP Tennis Academy.

“But I started to play on the tour in 2017. So I have only a few years under my belt being on the tour, whereas if you take a player at my age, maybe he was there for more than 10 or 12 years.

“So I still feel fresh in my mind despite the number [age] and I'm looking ahead for the next years to compete and to give it the best I can.”

Only a year and a half older than Tunisian tennis star Ons Jabeur, Echargui is good friends with the former world No 2, who is the most successful Tunisian and Arab player in history.

Jabeur and Jaziri have provided ample inspiration for Echargui, who says the duo have paved the way for many Tunisians.

“What she has done for the sport is unbelievable. Being second in the world rankings and making three Grand Slam finals – it seemed like it was impossible. But nothing is impossible, and especially for Tunisians, and Ons demonstrated it,” said Echargui.

“She brought so many people into the sport. Of course Malek gave such a push but nowadays with Ons, everyone back home is playing tennis. Everyone wants to be Ons and it's crazy. When I go back home, I go to my club where I grew up and I watch the kids and see what's going on and there are so many people involved and invested, and even the people that are not playing tennis, they're following tennis and they know who is playing where and what is he doing and everything.

“Of course for me as a person, seeing and watching her achievements and being close to her, because we kind of grew up together, it had such a positive impact.

“And she's an unbelievable person because she's always supportive and we always talk after the matches, she sends me messages of support. Despite what she's done, she always stays humble and she's always supportive.”

Beyond the Olympics, Echargui has his sights set on cracking the top 250 so he can make it into the qualifying draws at the Grand Slams – something he hopes to achieve before the end of this season.

“Besides that, I’m focused on just trying to give my 100 per cent and everything I can during my matches. It’s a work in progress. But I love what I do. It’s a journey and you have to enjoy it,” he added.

Updated: May 23, 2024, 9:52 AM