Jeff Tarango and Younes El Aynaoui had prepared for this particular match for the last month, plotting strategy for a certain Australian. After all, the road to the Australian Open title would certainly have to go through No. 1-seeded Lleyton Hewitt.
Wait a minute. Tarango and El Aynaoui?
The latest fun couple of tennis, albeit unlikely, moved into the spotlight Monday when the 31-year-old Moroccan pulled off the biggest Grand Slam upset of his career, knocking off Hewitt in the fourth round, 6-7 (4), 7-6 (4), 7-6 (5), 6-4.
Call it Manhattan Beach meets Morocco.
While some looked at No. 18-seeded El Aynaoui as a 31-year-old who had maximized his potential in winning three tournaments last year, his coach, Tarango, who lives in Manhattan Beach and France, saw a wildly talented player who could make the top 10.
It all came together in 3 hours 30 minutes of hard work, sprinkled with brilliant shot-making. El Aynaoui hit 33 aces, double-faulted only five times and never lost his serve, facing only three break points. A frustrated Hewitt grew increasingly cantankerous, hurling his racket when he missed a break-point opportunity in the final game, unraveling in another Australian Open disappointment.
Melbourne is the only Grand Slam event where Hewitt has not reached the quarterfinals. He can handle the hostility (winning the U.S. Open) and the cathedral-type atmosphere (winning Wimbledon), but unconditional support coupled with high expectations are another matter.
"At the moment, it's disappointing," said Hewitt, who gave full credit to his opponent. "No other way of putting it. Hopefully, I'm going to have a lot more opportunities, and that's the way I've got to look at it. I didn't leave anything out there today."
El Aynaoui was gracious as well and self-effacing. He looked around the crowded interview room of reporters and said, "Wow! Thanks for coming."
He has had success against Hewitt, beating him at Indianapolis in 2001 and pushing him to four sets at the U.S. Open last year before running short in the endurance department.
"It might be a surprise for most of the people," El Aynaoui said. "I mean, who knows me around the world? Not many people. But the ones who know more about tennis knew that I had a chance today. I knew I had my chances."
Next up is No. 9-seeded Andy Roddick in the quarterfinals. Tarango knows something about Roddick too, having helped him out informally at tournaments because he is close to Roddick's coach, Tarik Benhabiles. But for the moment, Tarango and El Aynaoui are savoring the Grand Slam breakthrough against Hewitt.
Said Tarango: "He believed in himself out there. There's not many guys that believe they can beat Hewitt against 15,000 people. That's a huge hurdle to get over. We prepared for that match for a month. We didn't just prepare for it last night.
"He was slicing his backhand effectively. Before, he was always scared to slice his backhand because he thinks it's defensive. I showed him how to use it as a weapon."