SPO_240426 TUNISIAN-1714129808768
Tunisia's Moez Echargui reacts after winning the African Games in Accra, Ghana. Image Credit: EUTERS

London: As a tennis-mad teenager growing up near Tunis it was always Moez Echargui’s dream to play at Roland Garros but having entered the professional ranks relatively late it looked as though it might never be realised.

Get exclusive content with Gulf News WhatsApp channel

In July, however, the 31-year-old will step on to the hallowed red clay courts after sealing a place at the Paris Olympics following his title run at the African Games.

His victory over Zimbabwe’s Benjamin Lock in the final in Ghana all but guaranteed Echargui a place in the draw for the Olympic tennis event courtesy of the International Tennis Federation handing spots to continental champions.

The former University of Nevada student must still make sure his world ranking remains inside the top 400 by the cut-off but with his current position just outside the top 300 that looks virtually assured.

Yet to sink in

Echargui, who will be the only male player from Africa to compete in the Olympic tennis event, admits it took a while for the enormity of his achievement to sink in.

Speaking by phone to Reuters during an ATP Challenger Tour event in South Korea, Echargui recalled the double joy of becoming African champion and qualifying for Paris.

“People were coming to congratulate me and I had a multitude of feelings like of joy and excitement and time stood still for that moment,” Echargui, who trains at the MXP Academy in Milan, said. “I was in the sky, not really realising what was going on.

Big accomplishment

“But I remember after when I got back and called my parents and everyone was in tears at that moment. It’s such a big accomplishment.”

Echargui has never set foot on Roland Garros so the fact the Olympic tournament is being staged at a venue he used to watch on television will make his Olympic appearance even more special.

“The last two Olympics were very far away, in Japan and Brazil,” he said.

“France is just a couple hours away from Tunisia and there is a big community of Tunisians over there.”

Echargui was close to being a top-100 junior player but injuries meant he opted for a US college education, earning a degree in mechanical engineering before deciding to give the Tour a go in 2017.

SPO_240426 TUNISIAN1-1714129811977
Tunisia's Moez Echargui holds the gold medal, next to Zimbabwe's Benjamin Lock with silver and Egypt's Mohamed Safwat. Image Credit: Reuters

Realistic target

A wrist injury slowed his progress but he believes a top-100 ranking and a Grand Slam debut are realistic targets.

“I believe in myself and that’s what kept me going,” said Echargui, who was awarded a Grand Slam Player Development Grant by the ITF in 2019.

“I had many difficulties throughout my career and I’m still standing and ready to go a step forward.”

Unbelievable feat

SPO_240115 AUS OPEN3-1705332714580
Ons Jabeur, who has reached three Grand Slam finals, is happy for the achievement of Echargui. Image Credit: AFP

Echargui said Ons Jabeur — Tunisia’s most high-profile athlete after reaching three Grand Slam finals — was one of the first to congratulate him on his African title.

“We know each other since we are young,” he said. “What she’s been doing these last years, it’s unbelievable, especially for a country like Tunisia. We don’t have a history of tennis.”

Echargui, who counts Andre Agassi and Novak Djokovic as his idols, said his route into tennis involved a game of football with his brothers.

“One day they took me to play football and the ball went over the wall and because I was like the baby they sent me to fetch it,” he said.

“Then I discovered there were tennis courts over there. All I wanted to do after that was play tennis.”