Overcoming obstacles and naysayers has been a constant theme for Aziz Dougaz, the Tunisian who is one of just two players from Africa in the Top 250 of the Pepperstone ATP Rankings.
The 26-year-old is enjoying a career-best season on the ATP Challenger Tour, where he’s reached seven quarter-finals in 2023 and is hoping for another deep run this week in Calgary, Canada. To understand how Dougaz has reached this point takes revisiting his past.
“My path was like no one else’s path that’s playing the same tournaments I’m playing,” Dougaz told ATPTour.com at the Calgary National Bank Challenger. “I think I created my own path in tennis and I pushed through the obstacles I faced and I have a lot more obstacles to face to reach my goals.
“I come from a city in Tunisia that nobody ever thought I could already be where I am now because of the obstacles. No money, no coaches, no tournaments. Tennis was just for fun and that’s it. Nobody thought that we could make it. I had nobody to tell me, ‘This is the way, this is what we need to do.’ I was always going through the unknown and adapting to what comes to me. I think that’s a strength I have and I have to use it.”
Dougaz finds extra motivation in inspiring young Tunisian kids that they too can reach the pro level, citing Malek Jaziri and Ons Jabeur as other key players in opening doors for the next generation. Jaziri hit a career-high No. 42 in 2019 and spent five years in the Top 100 while Jabeur, a three-time major finalist, is currently No. 6 in the WTA Rankings.
“The idea of having professional players in Tunisia when I was kid didn’t really exist,” Dougaz said. “But I think now it’s growing a lot. Malek had an amazing career and Ons now too, her impact is massive. I think a lot of people believe in tennis much more now that they can make it.”
Dougaz witnessed professional tennis first hand in 2005 when he was a ballkid at the Tunis Challenger, where Gael Monfils downed Fabrice Santoro in an all-French final. “I remember being at that match and it just marked me. It was amazing to see such amazing players so close,” he said.
The lefty became one of the Top 50 juniors in the world and spent three-and-a-half years at Florida State University, where he earned ITA All-American honours. Despite critics advising Dougaz to pursue a career outside of pro sports, his mind was set on achieving a dream.
“As a kid I always believed tennis was going to be my job even though nobody around me except my parents believed that,” Dougaz said. “Everyone was like, ‘Yeah, tennis is great. You can go to college and have talent but professional in Tunisia is impossible. We don’t have the money, we don’t have the infrastructure, we don’t have much to fight against the other countries.’
“Most people around me were like, ‘What are you doing? Just focus on school, you’re wasting your time.’ I’m really grateful my parents allowed me to keep dreaming and didn’t listen to all the people who said there’s no future in tennis.”
A memorable moment for Dougaz came this year at the US Open, where he was competing in qualifying with his parents Ahmed and Mona in attendance.
“That was amazing. I think they were super proud of me and for them it was a reward, a proud feeling of, ‘Our son is playing a big tournament like this and he’s winning a match and he’s around the best athletes there are in tennis,’” Dougaz said. “They are pushing me to achieve more because they definitely know it’s where I want to go and that my goal is still far away from where I am right now.”
Dougaz, who is World No. 242 in the Pepperstone ATP Rankings, is the highest-ranked Tunisian and just one of five players from the African country in the Top 1,000. Though his path to this point has been far from normal, Dougaz takes pride in his work.
“[I will] keep creating my own path, we all have different ways to get to a certain goal,” Dougaz said. “I’m going to believe in that and not think, ‘I didn’t have as many opportunities as the players I’m facing.’ I think it’s a strength that I’ve faced more challenges and my path is completely different than the normal guy in the Top 250.”