In the build-up to the cut-off date that locks down the entry list for the US Open, Tunisian tennis player Aziz Dougaz felt the most stress he had ever experienced in his life.
Since he turned pro in 2020 after playing college tennis at Florida State University for three and a half years, Dougaz had his sights set on raising his ranking high enough to at least make it into the qualifying draws at the Grand Slams.
The pandemic, a five-month suspension of tournaments, and the freezing of the rankings, delayed his progress early on, but this season the 26-year-old lefty has managed to firmly establish himself as a Challenger Tour player and secured his spot in the qualifying draw of a Grand Slam for the first time at Wimbledon earlier this summer.
Ranked 233 in the world, Dougaz is currently the highest-ranked Arab tennis player on the men’s tour (Lebanon’s Benjamin Hassan is projected to surpass him when the new rankings are released on Monday) and he’s in New York getting ready to compete in US Open qualifying, which begins on Tuesday.
“I feel like there is so much pressure, around the Slams especially, because for someone like me to play the qualies, it’s just like a really, really, really big deal financially,” Dougaz told The National in an interview ahead of his trip to New York.
A first-round loser in US Open qualifying earns more than $20,000 in prize money – a game-changing pay-check considering Dougaz made just over $50,000 in the first eight months of this year.
The cut-off date for the entry list of a major is weeks in advance and Dougaz was racing time, trying to make sure he did not miss out on the final Grand Slam of the season.
His tournament schedule saw him fly from Skopje, North Macedonia, to Little Rock, Arkansas, from Texas to London, then Germany, Romania, Finland and Switzerland, all while nursing an elbow injury. He had invested so much into trying to make it to New York and would have been in a serious financial hole had he not made the cut.
“To be honest, the last three weeks that counted for the US Open were the most stressful weeks of my life,” he said.
“I barely slept. I was waking up three, four times a night, stressing about points, about ranking, I checked the live ranking a million times, I think, to see where I was at and counting the points. That was an extremely tough situation. I haven’t been stressed like that my entire life, and I really don’t want to be in this situation again.”
Dougaz was two spots out for French Open qualifying, “that was a bit of a heartbreaker,” he recalled, but got his first taste of Grand Slam tennis at the senior level shortly after at Roehampton, where qualifying matches for Wimbledon are played.
“It was amazing I would say. It reminded me of the little kid that started to play tennis 20 years ago but no one thought I could be there,” said Dougaz, whose father Ahmed travelled to south-west London to witness his son’s major qualifying debut.
“That’s when you realise that all the tough days in the journey and in the process are maybe worth it.”
Dougaz was born in the coastal city of La Marsa in Tunisia and fell in love with tennis the moment his father, who played recreationally, took him to a court at the age of five so he could exert some energy away from home.
“I still have memories of watching tennis when I was six, seven years old on TV, watching Slams and I was like, this is what I want to do in life. This is it, this is the only thing, the only dream I have, I don’t want to be anything else, I don’t want to be a doctor, I don’t want to be anything else, I want to play tennis, I want to make it to these events and since then, honestly, the dream has always been there,” he said.
As a young teen, Dougaz was ranked in the top two in Tunisia but had little experience of competing outside the country. At 15, he and his family took the decision to send him to school in France, where he could study and train at a tennis academy. At 16, he won the African Junior Championship and was offered a scholarship to study and practise at a new ITF centre set up in Casablanca, Morocco.
In the juniors, he reached a career-high ranking of 46, which meant he competed in the boys’ draws at the Grand Slams and caught the attention of US college recruiters along the way.
“I had a lot of scholarship opportunities in the US, to go to college. That was a tough choice because I initially didn’t want to go, I wanted to play pro directly but I think it was the right decision,” said Dougaz, who never took holidays during his time at Florida State and competed in ITF tournaments any chance he got between terms.
Dougaz explains how different the tennis scene was in Tunisia at the time he was 18 and trying to make the choice between college tennis and going pro.
“Ons wasn’t doing as good as she is right now, the federation wasn’t as stable financially as it is now. Before I took the decision, I had basically nothing in Tunisia. I had no financial support, they didn’t have Futures (ITF tournaments) in Tunisia, the federation couldn’t help me much, I had no sponsors, no coaches. So for me, I was like, if I stay here, I’m not going to be able to do anything, I’m basically left with nothing,” he said.
“It was the rational decision to say, OK I go to college, I have a scholarship, it’s a great facility, I can play a lot of matches, I can study, I can give myself a shot also at tennis, developing as a player.”
The Tunisian broke the top 300 for the first time at the end of last year and peaked at 214 in the world two months ago. He has amassed an 18-21 win-loss record on the Challenger Tour in 2023, reaching one semi-final and six more quarter-finals.
He is encouraged by the performances of some of the players he competed against in college who have now shot up the rankings on tour, like Cameron Norrie and Christopher Eubanks, but it’s his compatriots Malek Jaziri and Ons Jabeur who have truly instilled belief in Dougaz.
The recently-retired Jaziri is just one of five Arab men to make it into the top 50 in the history of the ATP rankings, having hit a career-high mark of 42 in 2019, while Jabeur is the highest-ranked African woman and Arab player in history, with a career-high mark of No 2 and a trio of Grand Slam final appearances under her belt.
“I think obviously them making it, Malek making it on the men’s tour has opened the way to a lot of players, has allowed a lot of players to believe that they can do it, that it’s not impossible to achieve it even though it’s a lot of sacrifices, it’s a lot of work,” said Dougaz. “I know Malek personally, he struggled so much to get there and he deserved so much what he got.
“The fact that he did it and to be close to him as well helps a lot. He’s Davis Cup captain now, he’s always been like a big brother for me and for the guys in Davis Cup, so it’s great to have him as a role model.
“And Ons is the same way, now tennis is so popular in Tunisia, everyone’s watching it in the cafes, watching all her matches, it’s unbelievable, no one could have thought about that.”
Dougaz laments the fact that sponsors back home have yet to change their ways and refuse to back young talent, and instead wait until a player has already made it to the top before they choose to lend their support.
“I think that part is a little bit sad,” he said.
“I’m hoping that the better I do, the better it will get, and I hope that it could change the mentality as well. I’m hoping one day for the kids that will be after us they will have more support from the early stages.”
Dougaz does not have a training base and describes himself as “a citizen of the world”. He has an agreement to spend some weeks practising with a coach, Yannick Dumas, in Milan, or at various tournaments throughout the season and has yet to figure out a way to build a full team around him and find a regular spot to go to between events.
“I’m just travelling, I’m finding ways to perform, and finding ways especially to optimise and get the max from what I can get also according to my budget and all the factors in play,” he said.
“I think at the end you’re managing a company and the more capital you have, the more you can invest, and the more you can get also return on investment. It’s the way I’m trying to figure it out, I’m trying to increase my revenues, my capital as much as I can and every time I do, I’m trying to incorporate new things and get as close as I can to building an optimal structure.”
Dougaz spent the last few weeks undergoing treatment on his elbow in France before heading to New York. To get the US visa, a friend of his picked up his passport from Paris and took it to Dougaz’s father in Tunisia so he could apply on his son’s behalf before finding a way to send back the passport to France.
It’s a process Dougaz has to go through several times a year in order to obtain entry visas for pretty much every country or region he competes in, and it’s one that often leads to him missing events or reshuffling his schedule.
Still, despite the financial pressure, the logistical nightmares, and the lack of structure around him, Dougaz can always rely on his passion for the game to keep his ambitions alive.
“Honestly, for me, tournaments and matches are always so much pleasure, so much enjoyment,” he assures.
“I want to play; if I could, I would play a tournament every week. I love competing, I love playing matches, I love the atmosphere, I love playing in front of crowds, that’s amazing.
“I think I have to be extremely grateful that I’m in this situation. Practice gets tough, obviously some days it’s not always easy, you don’t always want to train as hard, but that’s when you need to remind yourself of what are you doing it for, what your goal is and, also, where you come.
“Wouldn’t you want to be in that situation 10 years ago? I think it’s really important to remind yourself that.”