Fueled by a snub, Rezai heating up
International Herald Tribune
THURSDAY, JUNE 1, 2006
For members of the tennis establishment like Roger Federer and Amélie Mauresmo, the cold and clammy conditions at the French Open this year seem like hardship duty as the tarps go on and off the clay and the big shots don't penetrate as they would in sunnier times and climes.
"It's actually pretty mild, for winter," joked Mauresmo after her 6-1, 7-6 (7-5) victory over the Russian teenager Vera Dushevina in the second round Wednesday.
But Aravane Rezai is not feeling the chill. Compared to her everyday existence, which includes sleeping in the family van to save money at tournaments, Roland Garros is nothing short of a theme park.
"It often happens that I cry during training," she said. "Many times I have trained with the snow falling or in the rain or outside when temperatures are below 10 degrees. That's tough, but when I come here, it's really Club Med."
It is turning into an extended vacation for Rezai, a solidly built 19-year-old French player of Iranian descent with limited mobility but big-time power in her often ferocious strokes.
She was denied a wild card into the main draw by French tennis federation officials who are in conflict with Arsalan Rezai, who is her father and coach. But the daughter has used that snub for fuel at the federation's showcase event.
Last week, she won three matches to qualify for the Open. On Wednesday on the Suzanne Lenglen Court, shortly before Federer won his rain-punctuated second-round match against Alex Falla, 6-1, 6-4, 6-3, Rezai reached the third round on the same damp stretch of clay by upsetting the 22nd seed, Ai Sugiyama of Japan, 6-4, 4-6, 6-3.
Other winners included David Nalbandian, the No.3 men's seed, who beat Richard Gasquet in four sets, and Maria Sharapova, the fourth-seeded woman, who played better on her sore right ankle than in the first round and beat Iveta Benesova, 6-4, 6-1.
The No.11 seed Venus Williams walked on Center Court at shortly before 8 p.m. with the stands nearly empty and temperatures near 10 degrees Celsius, or 50 degrees Fahrenheit, and fell behind, 0-4, against Emma Laine of Finland before rallying to win in the gloaming, 7-6 (7-2), 6-2.
Federer's quest to win his first French Open leads him next to Nicolas Massu, the 2004 Olympic champion from Chile who is having a fine clay- court season and who beat Max Mirnyi, 6-4, 7-5, 6-4, on Wednesday.
But no one looked happier than Rezai as she walked to the net after rallying against Sugiyama. She and her family are staying with friends in Paris instead of the player hotel to save money, and she is coming to the tournament by subway.
"We've had some problems," she said calmly of the federation as the cameras pointed at her. "I prefer not to talk about them and focus on my next match."
She was considerably more forthcoming after winning her first round over Alberta Brianti of Italy on Monday. "I don't need them," she said of the federation officials. "I will do my thing on my own and remember that the day I needed help, they didn't give it to me."
"I proved I'm capable of flying on my own," she said then. "For now, I play for my country, not for my federation."
Unlike most teenagers, Rezai has already played for two countries. In 2001 and again in 2005, she traveled to Tehran to compete for Iran in the Women's Islamic Games: a quadrennial event featuring 18 sports that is conducted in accordance with Muslim custom.
The clay courts used for the women's tennis event in Tehran were open only to female spectators and a barrier was put around the exterior of the courts so that the women could compete in shorts and without head scarves. The games were conceived to allow an opportunity to female Muslim athletes unable to compete in international competitions because of cultural barriers. But Rezai, a Shiite Muslim with French and Iranian nationality, does not have that handicap.
She said she went to Iran, where she won the gold medal in singles last year, because of her strong family connections (both her parents were born and raised there). She said she also went to show her peers in the Muslim world what possibilities exist elsewhere.
"I try to do my best for the girls who don't have the opportunity to do sport everywhere in the world, especially in the Middle East, and especially Muslim girls," she said. "I've gone twice to Iran to show them the level of the game, to show them how we train, how we work out."
Rezai is the second young Muslim woman to make a Grand Slam impact in the last year, coming on the heels of Sania Mirza of India, who reached the fourth round at the U.S. Open.
The confluence of modern tennis and traditional Islam has been tumultuous at times. Last year, a Muslim cleric in India issued an edict that Mirza stop wearing skirts and skin-baring attire on court, an edict that has not been widely supported by the Muslim community in India. Last week, Hussain Rasheed, a former Iraqi Davis Cup player turned coach, and two of his pupils were shot and killed in Baghdad. Iraqi police have reportedly linked the killings to Muslim edicts against wearing shorts.
Rezai is steering clear of social commentary here. "I don't want to get into politics or religion," she said.
But her father, Arsalan, said that he respected his daughter's right to dress in accordance with European customs when in Europe. "When in Iran, she dresses like all other Iranians, but here I let her dress herself like a European Muslim woman," he said. Aravane played against Sugiyama in a black skirt, a black shirt that covered her shoulders and a black visor.
She intends to compete for France, not Iran, in international competition. Because the Games in Tehran are not an officially sanctioned tennis event, they do not affect her eligibility to play for France. But Rezai still presents an awkward situation for French officials, because of their relationship with Arsalan, an Iranian immigrant who has been accused by other French junior players and their parents of intimidating them verbally and physically in an attempt to further his daughter's career.
In an interview Wednesday, Arsalan Rezai insisted that he was not a threat and said that he had been demonized because of jealousy in the French tennis community over his daughter's talent.
Federation officials have declined to comment this week, and Patrice Dominguez, the national technical director, did not return phone calls Wednesday.
Rezai was given a wild card for the French Open last year, and she won a round before losing to Maria Sharapova in the second. But since then, relations have deteriorated and, according to the Rezais, Aravane no longer receives financial aid from the federation.
"The problem is that my father coaches me personally," Aravane Rezai said, "and the federation does not accept this. It's very difficult to understand."
According to her father, Aravane, who is ranked 141st, has no major sponsorship contracts.
"Because of me, they don't want to help her, but in the last couple of days we have been having a lot more contacts," he said. He added that he had gone into debt to support his daughter's career.
Arsalan said he had decided that his children would play tennis after watching Yannick Noah win the French Open men's title in 1983 and leap into the arms of his father, Zacharie, with delight.
"He hugged his father; he thanked his father who had done something for him," Arsalan said. " That's when I got something in my head that I wanted to do something like that for myself."
His first pupil was his son, Anouch, who is now Aravane's sparring partner. Aravane was introduced to the game at age 7. Twelve years later, she is on a roll at Roland Garros and will face a much better-known teenager, the 17-year-old Nicole Vaidisova of the Czech Republic, in the third round. But for Arsalan, this is only the beginning.
"Of course I'm happy, but that's not the result I'm looking for," he said. "The result I'm looking for is No. 1 in the world. I've always wanted her to be No. 1. She was supposed to be No. 1 at 19. She's 19 now. We lost lots of time because of financial problems."