- The Washington Times - Tuesday, September 2, 2003

NEW YORK — He collapsed, flat on his back, like an upended crab in a spasm of joy. He rose to his feet, still exultant, bouncing into the stands to embrace his trainer.

Off came his shirt, hurled into the bleachers. Out came a racket, then another, flipped with glee to the still-applauding crowd.

As Younes El Aynaoui slowly strolled off the Grandstand Court on Sunday afternoon, basking in the afterglow of a hard-fought, five-set U.S. Open victory over the Czech Republic’s Jiri Novak, he looked like a man with nothing left to give — save, perhaps, his shoes and shorts.

Which, of course, is just the way El Aynaoui likes it.

“When I was watching tennis, I would love to get a piece of a tennis player, a wristband or anything,” he said, floppy dreadlocks framing a toothy grin. “So I’m always trying to give things away and make the people at least happy.”

On that front, mission accomplished. El Aynaoui, the U.S. Open’s No. 22 seed, is fast becoming a Flushing Meadows favorite, a player whose spirited play and infectious joie d’vive is charming fans and foes alike.

In three Grandstand matches — and at tournaments throughout the year — El Aynaoui has attracted a growing number of followers, many of them supporting the 31-year-old Moroccan with soccer-style chants and cheers.

“Sometimes, it does surprise you,” said El Aynaoui, who next faces No. 7 seed Carlos Moya of Spain in the fourth round. “People are really thankful. They seem to be so happy to shake my hand, to come and watch me. I just can say ‘thanks.’ I’m maybe happier than all of them are.”

El Aynaoui has reason to be exuberant. A 14-year ATP Tour veteran who speaks six languages, El Aynaoui is enjoying the finest stretch of his career, a late-blooming run to shame Hugh Hefner.

After winning three titles and finishing with a career-high No. 22 ranking last season, El Aynaoui cemented his status as a player to watch at this year’s Australian Open. First, he upset top-seeded Lleyton Hewitt in the fourth round; next, he staged an epic quarterfinal duel with Andy Roddick, losing 21-19 in the fifth set.

The final set lasted 2:23, a record for the fifth set of a Grand Slam singles contest in the Open era. The match was later nominated for an ESPY.

“It’s since that match against Andy that people really appreciate watching me and supporting me,” El Aynaoui said. “And I could feel it already in tournaments before — Indian Wells, Miami, all these tournaments. I didn’t get used to it in the past years. I was [the] most unknown player most of the time.”

That much is certain. Coming from a nation that has produced just one other player ranked in the ATP top 100, El Aynaoui didn’t take the conventional route to tennis stardom — enrolling at a Florida tennis school, signing with a management group or lining up sponsors, all before the senior prom.

To the contrary, the 18-year-old El Aynaoui left Morocco to work at the famed Bollettieri Tennis Academy in Brandenton, Fla. Answering a help-wanted ad, he found himself cleaning gyms. Filling ball machines. Conducting bed-checks. Even driving a bus. Anything and everything to get a little bit of practice time on the same courts that spawned the likes of Tommy Haas and Anna Kournikova.

Not that anyone noticed.

“I was doing a lot of small jobs just to pay for my stay there,” El Aynaoui said. “I never had a chance to talk to a famous coach or somebody like this and tell him, ‘I really want to do it.’ … I wasn’t really good, you know, until 24, 25. [There were] so many players better than me.”

One of those players was Andre Agassi, then the rock ‘n’ roll tennis apple of coach/guru Nick Bollettieri’s eye.

“I had a chance to practice once with Andre while I was there,” El Aynaoui said. “Now, we are very good friends.”

El Aynaoui’s early years weren’t any easier. He turned pro in 1990 but played just eight tour-level matches over the next three seasons, finishing 1992 ranked No. 307. After reaching three ATP finals in 1996, he suffered a pair of ankle injuries, the second in February 1997.

Surgery followed. Strapped for cash and facing seven long months of rehab — at a hospital that charged $300 a day for a room — El Aynaoui moved his family into New York City’s Ronald McDonald House.

“I was there with my wife and son,” he said. “[The] only [other people there were] children that [have] treatments that takes three, four years, like leukemia, cancers.”

Like some of his older peers on tour — Agassi and Todd Martin come to mind — El Aynaoui is a devoted family man. His wife, Anne Sophie, and sons, Ewen and Neil, have traveled with El Aynaoui for much of his career, only settling in their adopted hometown of Barcelona now that 6-year-old Ewen is attending school.

While El Aynaoui was playing in an Open tuneup in Long Island two weeks ago, his wife gave birth to a baby boy, Noam. El Aynaoui only has seen pictures of his third son via e-mail.

“I was thinking of flying [back to Spain] for a few days,” he said. “But then I decided to stay. I’m looking forward, of course, to go back and to see the baby.”

But not just yet. Behind his irresistible forehand and irrepressible emotion, El Aynaoui has emerged as a long-shot Open contender — one with a flair for the dramatic.

In his first-round match against Alex Kim, El Aynaoui cracked up the crowd by playfully arguing with a linesman. Facing up-and-coming Spanish teen Rafael Nadal, El Aynaoui needed two tiebreaks to win in three sets. He topped Novak with another pair of tiebreaks, the last coming in the fifth set.

Should his match against Moya come down to another nail-biting conclusion — a strong possibility, considering El Aynaoui’s history — the Moroccan won’t be phased.

“We all know he has played finals in Grand Slams, won the French Open,” El Aynaoui said of Moya. “I know it’s going to be a tough match. But I’m going to try to give 100 percent again.”

And perhaps give away a few more souvenirs.

“I’m trying to get some more rackets now,” El Aynaoui said with a smile.

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