The wildcard at the Exxon Mobile Open was the last gift of his long time friend, Karim Alami, now director of the tournament, to the greatest player ever of Arab descent, Younes El Aynaoui.
And the 38 years old Moroccan, who last November played in the last Senior Tour event in London, soon after the World Tour Finals, handed his friend something to be proud of.
El Aynaoui, formally inactive from September 2008, and once champion in the tradiotional first seasonal event in 2002, passed through the first round, with a consistent performance and a 76 76 victory over the American qualifier Ryler DeHeart, forced out for most of the last season because of a series of injuries.
El Aynaoui displayed a bright performances, with deep forehands like he did in his best days, when he arrived to be ranked n.14, in 2003 and 16 aces, included the last one, confirmed good by the Hawk Eye.
The match was his swansong. In the second round the Belgian Steve Darcis proved to be too much for the Moroccan, cheered by a community of noisy fans. The match against Darcis was frustrating for him, uncapable to find a way to break his resistence, highlighted by the point that sealed the first set: El Aynaoui opened himself the court with a pair of inswinging forehands on the advantage side but eventually wasted the smash with the court open.
The second set had few history. Darcis went 5-0, El Aynaoui at least held to avoid leaving tennis with a bagel. At the end of the day, the truth was simple. He left his heart on court after his first round win, when he lifted his racquet towards his fans and shot some photo with his children and simply couldn't do much more against Steve Darcis, who won 63 61.
He gave a lesson to fans and public. Less skilled than his lefty compatriot Hitcham Arazi, he won only five tournaments in career (Amsterdam 1999, Bucharest 2001, Doha, Casablanca and Munich in 2002), but showed how much power could mind have over body and identity card. And a photo was gifted him by Alami in a ceremony with Alami, his child and Nasser Al Khulaifi, the Qatari Federation president. Then, on the vidiwall, a video was shown with a selection of his best strokes and the trophy he lifted in Doha in 2002.
The champion was moved by such a gift shared with fans and friend. And left an inherit that overcomes his results. In Munich, in 2008, he became the oldest Atp semifinalist since Jimmy Connors in 1993 defeating on his run even Juan Martin Del Potro. Yesterday he became the oldest player to win a match since Jimmy Connors passed a round at Halle 1995.
He remains an example of fair play and skill, and now can dedicate himself to his foundation devolved to help children in Morocco. He was undoubtedly loved by fans who appreciated beauty beside effectiveness, and during the years he was able to soften some hard angle of his personality.
El Aynaoui will be remembered, more than for the rackets broken on his legs, for the extraordinary 2003 Australian Open. He defeated Lleyton Hewitt in a dramatic five setter and lost, in the quarterfinals, in one of the most intriguing match in the modern era. A match of astounding high level (102 winners to 107), an 83-game battle last 4 hours and 59 minutes, concluded at 2 am before the eyes of 13,000 delighted supporters; they battled for 2 hours and 23 minutes only in the fifth set. At the end, Roddick won, after coming back twice from a set down, and saving a match point at 4-5 in the fifth. An the Nebraska-native kid embraced his adversary and called him brother in one of the most remarkable day in tennis history.
Today, El Aynaoui's fairytale ended. He remained the best role model for his country, as a survey of the Moroccan paper L'Economiste registered in 2003, when he finished ahead of the prime minister and Hitcham El Guerrouj. He has obtained a gold medal from the King Mohammed VI and now the Royal tennis Club in Marrakech is named after him.
The only, little, possible regret is that he ended his career not before a huge crowd, as for example Andre Agassi did at the Us Open against Benjamin Becker. El Aynaoui surely would have deserved it.