40 LOVE History: Memories Of Morocco
Published April 30, 2013 12:00
MARRAKECH, Morocco - The Grand Prix SAR La Princesse Lalla Meryem is building quite an impressive history for itself. Not only has it been the WTA's only stop in Africa for years, but the quality of the field is getting better and better - and now there's some star power behind the scenes, too.
The Grand Prix SAR La Princesse Lalla Meryem - named after Princess Lalla Meryem, the sister of the King of Morocco, Mohammed VI - has been a WTA tournament for 13 years. But in a unique twist it has actually moved around several of the country's most beautiful cities - Casablanca from 2001 to 2004, the capital of Rabat in 2005 and 2006, Fès from 2007 to 2012 and, starting this year, Marrakech.
The tournament has had a number of WTA legends grace its courts - Svetlana Kuznetsova, Li Na, Dinara Safina - but none of them won the title, and the 2013 edition of the event produced arguably the most legendary winner in the event's history, former French Open champion Francesca Schiavone.
"It was a lot of emotions," Schiavone said of her title run this year. "It had been a long time since I was in a final, and having the chance to fight and leave everything in your life on the court in the last match really meant a lot to me. This was really a great week for me after a long, very difficult period.
"To win here is a great start to the clay court season for me and inspires me to keep working hard."
There was another very big name kicking around at the tournament this year, too - actually, he was kicking around all week - Hicham Arazi, a former ATP World Tour star, was the Tournament Director.
With his unique mix of power and touch, Arazi climbed all the way to No.22 in his playing days on the ATP World Tour, winning one title - fittingly in his hometown of Casablanca - and making four Grand Slam quarterfinals, two at the Australian Open and two at the French Open. He retired in 2007.
"When I was a tennis player I was just thinking about calling transportation, waiting for them to pick me up, then practicing and playing," Arazi said. "Everything was very easy - but now that I'm a Tournament Director, I can see how difficult it is to make everything happen. It's a huge difference. You don't really realize how hard people work when you're playing. This has been a great experience for me.
"It has also been nice to see all the girls again - some of the players who came here were playing when I was playing. Like Francesca - I knew her when I was on the tour. Seeing them was a highlight."
The tournament helps promote its home players, too. In 2011, Nadia Lalami made the quarterfinals, becoming the first Moroccan to reach the quarterfinals of a WTA event; this year two Moroccan players got wildcards, but they both fell first round. Morocco is still looking for its first Top 100 player on the women's side - Bahia Mouhtassine, Morocco's first and so far only woman to play at the main draw level at the Grand Slams, made it as high as No.139, with no others going higher than No.322.
It's an important cause to Arazi. "Not only is this tournament helping us promote the city, because this is a really touristic city, but it really helps our girls," he commented. "It gives some of our young players the chance to play at the WTA level and gain experience from playing some great players."
Like Arazi, Schiavone is known for her unique brand of tennis - there aren't many players out there with the shot variety she has. The two joked during the week about playing a set with against each other.
"Francesca asked me if I wanted to play a set," Arazi said. "She was going to leave right after the tournament to go to her next tournament, but I think I'll prepare for next year to play against her.
"What I like about her is she shows her emotions on the court when she plays and she has a different game than the other girls - she has a really good one-handed backhand, she can slice, she makes drop shots - kind of like Justine Henin. It's a style you don't see too much in women's tennis now.
"But I don't think I would win against her - she is playing too confident right now."
Schiavone's response? "I think if I gave him one hour to practice that would be enough for him to beat me!" she said. "He was a great player. If he practiced even a little bit, it would be easy for him."