The Second Most Famous Knee in Tennis

Tuesday, October 15, 2013 /by
Tunisia's Malek Jaziri, in 2012. (AP Photo)
Tunisia's Malek Jaziri, in 2012. (AP Photo)

“To be clear, Malek pulled out for sporting reasons, because he was injured. He did his warm up, something was wrong, and the doctor found that his knee was swollen. But at the political level, we received an order not to play.”—Amir Jaziri, brother and manager of Malek Jaziri, the Tunisian player who pulled out of his quarterfinal match with Israel’s Amir Weintraub in the Tashkent Challenger.

So let’s be honest but smart and not merely cynical about this. The “Oh, by the way” nature of the second sentence had to be intentional.

Malek and Amir Jaziri are citizens of Tunisia, the fledgling democracy that inspired the “Arab Spring.” It is also an overwhelming Muslim nation (98 percent) bordered by Algeria and Libya. Thus, we have to assume that the Jaziris must tread pretty carefully when it comes to descrying the heavy-handed way Malek was ordered by the Tunisian Tennis Federation to refuse to play an opponent because the man is a citizen of Israel. 

Because of this intrusion of politics into theoretically forbidden territory, Malek was denied an opportunity to creep a little closer to the Top 100—and direct entry into Grand Slam events. But you want to know the really sick thing about all this? Malek Jaziri and Amir Weintraub are members of the same blue ribbon tennis club in France. In fact, the president of Sarcelles Tennis told the AFP news service that Malek Jaziri was directly responsible for the club having recruited Weintraub (although he didn’t specifically say—or deny—that the two players are friends).

The chilly quote from Amir (and other, stronger statements he made) makes it clear how the Jaziris felt about the stand-down order. At the same time, Amir’s emphasis on Malek’s knee injury is not just self-serving, but also palliative. It takes a little heat off Malek for complying with the order, and it may enable the Tunisian Tennis Federation to escape any official censure by the ITF. The net result is that the Jaziris have expressed their discontent without seeming utterly disloyal to and critical of their Islamist government.

The directive forbidding Malek to play was delivered by the Tunisian Tennis Federation following a meeting with functionaries at the Tunisian ministry of youth and sport. The TTF’s action doesn’t fly with the ATP, but that’s where the issue becomes tricky. Does the ATP punish Jaziri, who was only carrying out the orders of a powerful federation that can keep him out of Davis Cup competition? And even if you’re willing to do that, can you punish Malek if he wasn’t going to play in the first place because of his bum knee?

The ATP can’t bring any sanctions to bear against the Tashkent tournament (which bears no guilt in this), nor does it have the authority to punish the TTF; that would be the International Tennis Federation’s job.

The ITF is investigating the incident because, as ITF spokesperson Nick Imison put it, “(The action) goes against the ethos of the organization, and against the ITF constitution.”

Should the ITF decide that the TTF violated its by-laws, it could punish the TTF by barring it from the Davis Cup competition. As an affiliate of the International Olympic Committee, the ITF could also influence the TTF’s standing with the IOC—and we all know how important the “O” word is throughout the world.

But what is now the second most famous knee in tennis (after that of Rafael Nadal) will influence all those discussions, and give the TTF cause to plead for little or no punitive action.

Malek’s knee injury has already been described as “diplomatic” by the Tunisian daily newspaper La Presse (Tunisia is a Francophone nation). But the same article praised Malek for his decision not to play and said that while he had lost ATP points, Malek “won respect and preserved his honor.”

I’m not sure just whose “respect” La Presse was referring to. Personally, I have a lot of sympathy for Malek’s plight, but that’s about as far as I’m prepared to go.

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