It’s been two full years since Lamine Ouahab played a match in the main draw of an ATP tournament. Even his appearance at lower levels of competition has been sporadic; the 33-year-old has been “seemingly competing only part time,” per Sport360. If you’d tuned in at any point in today’s first-round match at Marrakesh, and stuck around long enough for a closeup, you would not be surprised to learn any of the above. Let us all acknowledge that this is a part-time looking-ass dude.
The face on the other side might be more familiar: Philipp Kohlschreiber, who is currently No. 34 in the world and has steadily hovered around that mark for over a decade now, though it feels twice as long. Just watched him beat the No. 3 player in the world just a few weeks ago, firmly expected him to roll through this match and right into his middling, homogeneously top-30 future. Pick him every day to beat the wild card with a No. 617 ranking and a name unfamiliar to all but the most inveterate students of the ITF circuit or Arab tennis. But no! Anything I wrote last month about the vicarious thrills of Marcos Baghdatis’s beer-league physique has turned out to be totally premature; Ouahab looks even more the part. Just like Marcos, Ouahab can really ball. Enjoy the lob, the drop shot, and some nice junky slice forehands.
Ouahab served Kohlschreiber a bagel in the second set, and the German broke immediately to open up a 3-0 lead. At 5-2, 30-30, and again at deuce that game, Kohlschreiber was two points from closing out this match, and that second set could’ve been written off as a mental lapse. Instead Ouahab came back and leveled the set and won a tiebreak to take this match 2-6, 6-0, 7-6(3), leap some hundred spots in the rankings, and make Kohlschreiber the second-highest-ranked foe he’s ever beaten.
Ouahab looks like he could have been a more regular presence on tour, if not at its top tiers, and especially on his favorite surface. His prolonged absences have their explanations: He’s previously been frank about the bureaucratic obstacles and financial difficulties of Arab tennis players, who tend to lack the sporting infrastructure and travel ease of, say, European counterparts. “Last year I couldn’t get a visa for the U.K. in time for Wimbledon so I couldn’t go. Sometimes I get it the day before, or on the same day,” he told Sport360's Reem Abulleil back in 2015, shortly after he’d beaten world No. 24 Guillermo Garcia Lopez. Back then, he said he lacked a coach, physical trainer, manager, and was proud he could still “compete with guys up to No. 20 in the world.”
“I don’t have sponsors of course, I don’t have help for the papers … it’s not excuses, it’s just the reality and I think 80 percent of the players on the tour don’t go through this,” he explained.
“He looks like my dad, if my dad were Algerian,” my coworker Dan McQuade explained.
At his career peak Ouahab hit No. 114 in the world in 2009 and can claim some remarkable wins—if only you rewind the clock far enough.
“I think people know I can beat these kind of players. I’ve done it before. I grew up with so many of these players on tour. Even though they’re ranked better I am, we know each other very well,” said Ouahab today after his victory. In that distant childhood, he beat Rafael Nadal in the boys’ semifinal of Wimbledon 2002. For perspective: that’s just four years before Rafa, by then linebacker-shaped, installed himself as an annual fixture in the big boys’ final there on the grass.
“When I was 16 I made the semifinals at Roland Garros juniors, I was No. 4 in the world as a junior. I beat Rafa, Berdych, Gasquet … I had the opportunity to play for France, but I didn’t do it to keep playing for my country,” Ouahab said in that same 2015 interview. “But unfortunately, the federation, the ministry, the sponsors … nobody cares.” Picking allegiances has long been charged for this Algerian native, who competed for his country for much of his career and eventually shifted over to neighboring Morocco in a bid to improve his funding situation. “Maybe I get not even 15 or 20 percent of the budget I need to play but before that I was getting zero, so it’s a little better,” he said of this shift.
Junior results are a deeply imperfect predictor of professional returns, of course. So many wash out along the way, or are left behind by peers who grew bigger, faster, stronger in ways that are impossible to compensate for. Still: after seeing this guy take the court looking barely conditioned for the demands of the tour, then watching him cleanly outhit a veteran in a third-set tiebreak, it’s slightly tempting to sketch out a very different, very hypothetical trajectory for Ouahab’s life and career—one unencumbered by geopolitics and red tape, and way more full of smooth backhands, the occasional junk ball, and red clay.