Phone running hot as 'Egyptian King' hails Sherif

Qualifier catches football legend Mo Salah's attention with historic run to first Slam main draw

Mayar Sherif, Roland Garros 2020, qualifying third round© Clément Mahoudeau/FFT
 - Reem Abulleil

Shortly after she became the first woman representing Egypt to make it to a Grand Slam main draw, Mayar Sherif switched on her phone and was met with a stream of messages from her three sisters, telling her about the massive reaction back home.

Sherif, 24, blasted through three qualifying rounds at Roland-Garros, dropping just 14 games in total en route to securing a maiden major berth.

Following her second-round victory over American Caty McNally, Egypt and Liverpool football superstar Mohamed Salah shared the news of her win on his Twitter account and commented with an applause emoji.

As the world No.172, Sherif is already the highest-ranked Egyptian woman in tennis history, but like many athletes competing in individual sports from her country, she admittedly does not garner much attention, especially in comparison to football, the No.1 sport in Egypt.

Her heroics in Paris this week, however, caught the eye of the masses back home, and the encouragement from Salah, Egypt’s biggest sporting icon, understandably means a lot to Sherif.

“It’s very, very nice to get this kind of support from someone who is already very, very good, and someone who is very special from Egypt,” Sherif told of ‘The Egyptian King’.

“Salah is someone who is one of a kind. So it’s very nice, it made me feel like, ‘Oh, someone important is following, thank God’.

“Honestly it’s very nice to see that people know who I am, that people know the effort I’m doing, that people know that, ‘Oh, this person is special, this person is doing something different’. This is very, very important, it gives me a lot of mental support.”

Mayar Sherif, Roland Garros 2020, qualifying final round© Corinne Dubreuil/FFT

Sherif - who started 2019 unranked and cracked the top 200 by season's end - said she drew plenty of inspiration from Salah.

“It’s not easy to go outside of your home to take a risk and to be one of the best in the world in something that your country is not really the best in," she said.

"You have to create that belief in yourself, you have to take that path for yourself and you have to work on yourself so hard. And he did that so fast and he’s now one of the best football players in the world.

“And it’s not like he was there and then he’s going down. He’s there, and he’s up there and he’s staying up there. I mean chapeau, it’s unbelievable.”

Sherif, who drew No.2 seed and former world No.1 Karolina Pliskova in the opening round of Roland-Garros, had a long journey to the pros.

She jumped from one club to another in Cairo for many years as a junior, trying to find proper coaching.

After making it into the top 50 in the world junior rankings, she stopped travelling to tournaments because of the expense and her stay at an academy in Alicante, Spain was cut short for similar financial constraints.

She opted to travel to the United States to study and play college tennis and 2019 was her first proper year on the professional circuit, after she graduated with a degree in sports medicine from Pepperdine University.

Sherif has no regrets over her chosen route and feels it is all finally paying off.

“Honestly it feels amazing. I feel like I took the right path, because a lot of people say, ‘Oh, going to college is a mistake’, and all this. But I have so many years to play tennis and I started last year with the age of 23 and ultimately if you have the level, you’re going to make it,” said the Cairene.

“It’s just about how long is it going to take you to make it? And now the tennis age is much older than before and you can keep playing for so many years, so I feel like there’s no rush.

"Even if I don’t make it now, in the next two, three, four, five years I’ll be patient. I know I have the level, which is the most important thing.”

Another first for Sherif was a recent sponsorship deal she signed with a prominent bank in Egypt – a first of its kind for any tennis player in the country.

“I think it’s just the start. It’s my job and (fellow Egyptian tennis player) Mohamed Safwat’s job to lead this, to take this for the next generation, to normalise this, so that any talented player in Egypt who needs support can get it. Because we have a lot of young talent, but they don’t continue because there is no financial support, or there is no guidance,” she explained.

Sherif will be one of two Arab women – alongside Tunisian No.30 seed Ons Jabeur – competing in the Roland-Garros main draw this fortnight. This is the first time since Selima Sfar of Tunisia and Bahia Mouhtassine of Morocco played at Australian Open 2002 that two Arab women feature in a Grand Slam main draw.

Jabeur and her coach Issam Jellali gave Sherif tips ahead of her match with McNally and the Tunisian is excited about the idea of finally having another Arab to share the spotlight.

“Honestly, I don’t think she needed our tips, she was playing really well. I’m really happy for her,” said Jabeur, a former Roland-Garros junior champion.

“I wasn’t sure if it was the first time two Arab women are in the main draw of a slam or not, but to be honest I’m really, really happy. Hopefully we could make a good impression in Roland-Garros together.”

Sherif has a game perfectly suited for clay. She hits a heavy ball and can spray forehand winners all over the court. She has a daunting task ahead of her against the fourth-ranked Pliskova, a semi-finalist in Paris in 2017 and a US Open runner-up in 2016.

The North African qualifier has only ever faced three players ranked in the top 100, and the highest-ranked opponent she has played was world No.38 Kristina Mladenovic last year in Dubai.

“It’s going to be another experience. I’m going to do my best to enjoy it. To go to the court thinking of the stuff I need to do and what I need to work on,” Sherif said. “I don’t play to win or to lose, just go to the court to enjoy and do my job.”