For the first time since the 1970s, there is an Egyptian tennis player ranked in the top 100.
Trailblazer Mayar Sherif hit that important milestone earlier this month when she rose to No 97 in the world rankings on the heels of becoming the first Egyptian to ever reach the final at a WTA tournament.
Sherif’s feat is just the latest in a long list of firsts she has been able to accomplish over the last couple of years. The 25-year-old is the first Egyptian woman to crack the top 200, the first to qualify for a Grand Slam main draw, the first to win a match in a Grand Slam main draw, and the first woman to represent Egypt in tennis at an Olympic Games.
Two weeks ago, in a tournament in Cluj-Napoca, Romania, she became the first Egyptian to make a quarter-final, semi-final and final of a WTA event before she fell to former top-10 player Andrea Petkovic in the title decider. As a result, Sherif made her top-100 debut.
“It’s important for me to always break barriers as an Egyptian tennis player and to pave the way for the next generations,” the Cairene told The National in an interview last week.
“Of course if I want to move forward I have the burden to break barriers and I like that kind of pressure because I want to go for more, I always want more. I have very high ambitions and I believe in myself and I know this is just the start.”
Sherif isn’t just breaking barriers on court; her pioneering efforts have extended to the Egyptian sports industry at large.
When she was barely ranked inside in the top 200, Sherif and her management team began to attract a string of high-profile sponsors that had previously shown zero interest in Egyptian tennis.
She signed unprecedented deals with major companies like Vodafone, National Bank of Egypt, Allianz, Peugeot, Ora Developers (Zed), and earlier this month, she announced a brand new agreement with Mastercard.
Her face is plastered on billboards around Cairo, she has appeared on all of Egypt’s top talk shows, she had a surprise meet and greet with football superstar Mohamed Salah – thanks to their common sponsor Vodafone – and was featured in TV commercials alongside some of the biggest athletes in the country ahead of the Olympics.
Sherif, who kicks off her US Open qualifying campaign in New York on Wednesday, has quickly emerged as a sports icon over the last two years, and is enjoying commercial success that had never been realised by an Egyptian tennis player.
Considering the fact that she was unranked at the start of 2019 season – she had just finished her college tennis career, playing for Pepperdine – it is remarkable that Sherif managed to gain such traction with sponsors, well before entering the top 100.
“Egypt’s market is extremely unique,” her agent Sherif Monsef El Maanawy said. “The Egyptian audience is a very sentimental audience, and it’s not towards the very practical side that thinks like, ‘Mayar is not a top-10 player, or Mayar is not a top-50 player, so she’s not up to our support’. Egyptians look forward to the smell of success and just the small glimpse of success and they hang onto that.”
A few years ago, El Maanawy, the founder and CEO of Connection Marketing Ventures, identified what he described as a “weakness” in the Egyptian sports industry when it came to tennis. As a parent of two young tennis players, he witnessed firsthand the limited resources available to the sport in the country and he began to explore ways to help market local players.
“The market value was zero, literally, and opportunities are limitless,” he said, reflecting on the early days of his journey with tennis.
He signed Egypt’s top two players, Sherif and Safwat (who is no longer represented by El Maanawy), and helped them secure their first big contract with the National Bank of Egypt in early 2020.
“We created more visibility for the players, we moved them out to the light, from the dark,” El Maanawy said. “It was a good contract too, for the tennis market, it was a really big contract and that helped us out to have more money to compete again, to be ready again, to spend on training, fitness, touring around the world, with the sponsorship money.”
By the fall of 2020, Sherif took another major leap when she qualified for Roland Garros to become the first Egyptian woman in history to feature in a Grand Slam main draw.
“That was the real moment for us and again we started another level,” El Maanawy said.
El Maanawy says a main issue in the sports industry in Egypt, and possibly the region, is that marketers do not treat athletes as brands, which in turn dents their chances at attracting the right sponsors. He believes placing Sherif as a top brand in the sports industry as a whole, and positioning her as “an idol to be loved in a sentimental way by the Egyptian audience” is what helped them achieve commercial success as a team.
“We managed to deal with Mayar as the ‘Amr Diab’ of tennis players. We dealt with Mayar as if she’s a top brand and we put a mandate that we deal only with top brands. So now we’re carrying the names of the top brands in their industry,” he said.
When El Maanawy initially approached companies about Sherif, he pitched her as the first woman in Egypt to qualify for the Olympics in tennis – a spot she guaranteed by winning gold at the African Games in the summer of 2019. Her year-round performances on the tennis tour, however, slowly changed the perspective of her sponsors, who soon realised there was more to her than just being a first-time Olympian.
El Maanawy is keen to strengthen the relationship with the companies who have a better understanding of tennis, instead of relying on short-term deals that were mostly centred on the Olympics. Sherif, her coach and El Maanawy even gave an informational session about tennis at the offices of one of her sponsors to educate them more about her craft.
“Look at Peugeot for example; Peugeot is now moving towards being a tennis brand, which means we will have harmony, we will have relevance. When we go on tour, we’ll have their support internationally, so it’s not about money. Another automotive brand wanted to pay us like 30 or 40 per cent more than Peugeot, but I picked Peugeot because they are a tennis brand, they will respect Mayar when she plays, when we want to focus, they do not want to drain her, they understand tennis,” he said.
“That’s how we think, what is the relevant brand to tennis? What’s the relevant brand to sport? How they are going to support Mayar on all dimensions? It’s not just about money. Money came, and money is coming and money will come much more, but it’s about setting the right things, and the clean, beautiful, relevant brands.”
El Maanawy says Sherif’s contracts are bigger than many of the Olympic athletes who went to Tokyo this year, but tennis remains a world apart from the behemoth that is football in Egypt.
“Compared to football, it’s like we’re comparing a watermelon to a peanut,” he said.
A major gap to fill for Sherif right now is signing an apparel contract. She has yet to secure a clothing sponsor but her top-100 debut is expected to spark great interest from the main players in the market.
Sherif is talented, determined, and has a unique edge compared to many Egyptian athletes in that she does not settle for anything mediocre and is not satisfied by simply making a final or hitting a new ranking milestone. Her constant hunger for more is palpable.
“I learned that I can beat anybody, I can lose also to anybody, that anything is possible. I broke a couple of barriers in this tournament and it just gave me a lot of motivation to keep going,” she said after her runner-up showing in Cluj. “I feel like this is the start of a very long road that just opened up and it gave me a boost of more belief, more ambition and passion. Hopefully the best is yet to come.”
Her agent shares her sentiments. He can sense a shift in the sponsorship landscape in tennis in Egypt, thanks to Sherif’s trailblazing exploits.
“I don’t just see it or feel it, I’m experiencing this right now with what’s going on in the tennis landscape with other younger players now that are approaching us, asking what can they do be like Mayar or what can they do to be managed by us and our company, or other companies. And sponsors are coming and asking us about our next projects in tennis, for them to sponsor,” he says.
“It is very obvious that fresh sponsorship money is ready for the right moment.
“All this happening in less than a year; so imagine if there are one, two, three, four companies doing that in the next five years. I think tennis will fly and it’s actually already flying.”