Five days after he helped guide Egypt to qualification to the Davis Cup World Group I for the first time, playing captain Mohamed Safwat was still recovering his voice.
“I lost it during the weekend. Between playing and cheering on my teammates during their matches, I didn’t stop talking the whole two days,” Safwat says with a laugh.
Egypt defeated Ecuador 3-1 in a World Group I play-off tie in Cairo this month, securing a place among the best tennis nations on the planet for the first time.
Safwat, who has been Egypt’s top player for nearly 15 years, took over the team’s captaincy mid-2023 and has since helped his side claim two crucial tie victories, over Uruguay in Montevideo last September, and now against Ecuador at Cairo’s Gezira Club.
The Mansoura native gave Egypt a 1-0 lead after surviving a titanic three-and-a-half-hour battle against Ecuador’s Alvaro Guillen Meza. Safwat squandered a 3-0 lead in the opening set, and a 5-0 lead in the second, and had to save two match points before completing a 4-6, 7-6, 7-6 victory.
“This was the strangest match I ever witnessed in my entire career,” Safwat told The National.
In the second singles match of the tie, 24-year-old Alexandrian Amr Elasrawy posted a big upset over former top-100 player Emilio Gomez before Safwat and Karim Mohamed Maamoun sealed the deal for the hosts by winning the doubles.
Safwat, 33, and Maamoun, 32, are the team's veterans and have been Egypt’s trusted duo for over a decade. But they’re both in the twilight of their careers and want to give back to the sport that has given them so much.
At the start of last year, they sat down with the president of the Egyptian Tennis Federation, former top-40 player Ismail El Shafei, to figure out a plan for the future.
“We had an honest conversation and we spoke about, ‘what’s next?’ There is a big gap between Karim and I, and the players behind us. Karim is ending his career soon, and I’m not in my 20s any more, so who will take over when we are done?” said Safwat.
A plan was devised where Safwat would take the lead and set up a Davis Cup programme, which included him taking over as playing captain, and Maamoun would head up a development programme that brought together six of the most promising players under the umbrella of the ETF.
Maamoun is the head coach for the group, but both he and Safwat work closely together in the players’ overall development.
Through this new system, the players are provided with a place to train, a tennis coach, a fitness coach, and are never alone at tournaments. When they fly to Sharm El Sheikh to compete in ITF events, either Safwat or Maamoun is with them.
They follow a proper schedule that helps them avoid burnout and go through training blocks between every stretch of tournament play. Opportunities for them to compete internationally, at Challengers or in club matches in Germany or France, are being explored, with an upcoming trip to Rwanda in the works.
Maamoun has introduced a professional lifestyle previously unknown to the players, while Safwat gets to monitor their form at tournaments to make sure any wild cards awarded to the players at the ITFs hosted in Egypt are based on specific criteria and merit, instead of the previous rotational wild card system that was in place.
“We’ve created a healthy competition between the players, so it’s no longer a case of comfort zone where a player feels they are guaranteed a wild card. No, it’s now a case of, I need to work and I need to earn [it] and when I get a wild card I need to make the best out of it,” explained Safwat.
Although he’s already working on building a lasting legacy, Safwat is not ready to hang up his racquet just yet. Formerly ranked 130 in the world, Safwat’s career was derailed by the coronavirus pandemic and his ranking took a nose dive after he underwent surgery for a hernia at the end of 2022.
“When I dropped in the rankings, I started to realise that everything was about myself, just me, myself, and I. And then I started to open up and I felt like there are more things I can do and that I should start to share my experience, or to help by any means I can,” said Safwat.
“And honestly when I started doing that, the guys I’m working with were a big part of me trying to make a comeback. Just like I was pushing them in practice, they were pushing me back.”
After dropping out of the top 800, Safwat is now back in the top 400, thanks to four title runs on the ITF circuit last year. While he’s competing, Safwat is keeping a close eye on the development group.
“I think it was a perfect set up for me. I enjoy it really. Yesterday, for example [at a tournament in Sharm El Sheikh], I was at the courts from 9am until 6pm. I’m watching matches, I’m trying to help them; it is tiring yes, but I feel like I like doing this,” he said.
“There was a shift in my thinking and when I started doing this, I started to feel much better and I’m more relaxed overall. It was not about me, I’m trying to deliver something bigger than me.”
Safwat says the need to set a good example for the players is what helped him fight his way through his marathon singles match in the Ecuador tie.
His role as playing captain comes with its own set of challenges, where he often postpones his own practice sessions or warm-ups to make sure his teammates are ready for battle.
“It’s a different mindset, and requires a different preparation, so I can switch from player mode to coach mode,” he added.
Maamoun says he has started seeing progress made among the players, with many of them enjoying better results at the ITF events with the new system in place.
“They’re all encouraging each other, because they know they’re the best of the best together in this group,” he said.
“Moving forward, we want to include a couple of juniors so that we really start building a team for the future, because myself and Safwat probably have a year or two left in us before we stop playing. We have to have a team ready to take over.”
Elasrawy is not part of the group working with Maamoun under the federation’s umbrella because he chose to keep working with his own personal coach, but he’s still benefiting greatly from having Safwat as Davis Cup captain and said his victory over Gomez came at a very important time for him.
“For me, personally, it was a big challenge for me. My results haven’t been the best recently. I got injured last summer and when I came back, my results were not great and I had points to defend so my ranking slipped,” said Elasrawy.
“So that match was a big challenge for me and I needed to prove to myself where I was and who I was. My confidence was pretty low because of my results in the build-up. So I was so happy I was able to perform during Davis Cup weekend, and with the team’s results overall.”
With the tie taking place across Friday and Saturday, Elasrawy initially thought he would be playing on day two, but was informed on Thursday morning he would be called on for the second singles clash on opening day.
“Safwat helped me so much to get me out of the zone of preparing for day 2 and instead being ready for day 1,” he said.
“And there was a lot of pressure when Safwat was playing, where I wasn’t at the bench watching, because I was preparing for my singles match in the locker room. So I had no idea what was going on, and I didn’t know if I will be entering the court with us leading 1-0 or trailing 1-0.
“I spoke to Safwat during the 20 minutes between our matches and he helped me so much. He told me the pressure was on them since they were down 1-0 and he got me into the mindset where I just want to fight as hard as I can to give us a 2-0 lead on day 1.”
The draw for the World Group I ties was made last Thursday with Egypt handed a tricky clash against Hungary in Cairo in September.
There’s a big gap in experience and ranking between both teams but given what we’ve seen from the Egyptians these last two ties, they won’t go down without a fight.