Mayar Sherif on ending her long wait for a win and pride in her journey to top

Egyptian player secured her first victory of a difficult year at the Madrid Open this week

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It took Mayar Sherif three hours and 15 minutes of sheer battle to finally notch her first win of the year in the Madrid Open first round on Wednesday, and the Egyptian could not be more relieved.

Outside of Billie Jean King Cup (a nation v nation team competition), Sherif was winless in 2024, on the back of a history-making 2023 season in which she peaked at No 31 in the world to become the highest-ranked Egyptian tennis player ever to pick up a racquet.

An impressive march to the quarter-finals at the WTA 1000-level tournament in Madrid 12 months ago followed by back-to-back title runs at the WTA 125-level helped carry Sherif to the brink of the top 30.

But tennis can be a funny sport sometimes. One minute you’re winning 10 matches in a row and the next you are struggling amid a four-month losing stretch.

Confidence in tennis can take a long time to acquire but just a second to lose. Sherif has had first-hand experience with that.

“It's been difficult mentally. I’ve passed through a really tough period because I’ve been putting in the work on the court, practising, doing whatever I can to feel better on the court.

“But just when you get into that bubble of losing match after match, and then your confidence gets affected, that’s when it’s tough to get out of that,” Sherif told The National after her 4-6, 7-6, 6-4 win over Lauren Davis in the Spanish capital on Wednesday.

“I’m happy I broke that bad momentum kind of, and now I’m really excited and I have more confidence going into the next round.”

Breaking “that bad momentum” was far from an easy task for Sherif. The 27-year-old Cairene trailed Davis by a set and 3-5, before she struck back to force a second-set tiebreak and take the clash into a decider. In the final set, Sherif nearly squandered a 4-1 advantage and dropped serve twice before sealing the deal.

“I’m so happy today because the last few matches under pressure I didn’t play my best,” she said.

“I fell into the pressure, I didn’t do well. But today I was so happy I stayed there until the end, every point, every point, even though at some point I wasn’t feeling good.

“I was feeling scared of competing, I was not feeling my shots. But I’m happy I found that point of being consistent and finding myself on the court.”

Sherif tries to explain what exactly changed in her mindset that led to her struggles this season and doesn’t shy away from her own shortcomings.

She says unlike last season, when she was focused on doing the right things on court, this year, she has been preoccupied by winning, and only winning.

“It was tough to focus on doing the right thing and doing the things that my coach tells me before going to the match. All I was thinking about is just to get that first win and then your mentality shifts, and you go down when you’re not winning during the match, and then it goes worse and worse and worse,” said Sherif.

“While last year, I had my mind so clear, even though I’m missing, I’m losing, OK, no problem, I’m doing the right thing, this is what I have to do, I win, I lose, no problem. And that’s just confidence, even under pressure, you know you’re doing the right thing, that’s it, there is no hesitation.”

Had she lost on Wednesday, Sherif would have dropped out of the top 100, with the pressure of defending those Madrid quarter-final points from last year mounting.

In an effort to relieve some of that pressure, Sherif’s coach, Justo Gonzalez, has been trying to remind her of how far they’ve come as a team.

As a young player, Sherif could not even play many junior tournaments because of financial constraints and she went to the United States on a tennis scholarship to study at Fresno State before going to Pepperdine University.

In an interview on the The National's Abtal podcast, Sherif revealed she wasn’t even considering turning pro until halfway through college, partly inspired by Tunisian Ons Jabeur’s rise through the rankings.

She moved to Spain post-graduation and when she would run out of funds, her coach Gonzalez would help support her financially to keep her career alive.

Sherif went from being unranked to inside the top 200 in her first year on tour and she went on to become the first Egyptian to win a WTA title when she triumphed in Parma in 2022.

Hailing from a nation with limited pathways to the pro ranks, Sherif’s journey is a tale of triumph in and of itself.

“My coach always reminds me of that,” says Sherif, who recently signed a new apparel deal with Adidas. “My coach gives me a lot of confidence and reminds me, ‘We came from nothing, we were alone, we helped each other to get to this point’.

“And I feel like my coach was pulling me out of that mental state that I was in the last few months and honestly it helped a lot.

“Thinking that I came from nothing, how tough I am. I’m the only Egyptian and to go out of there is very, very tough. And when I think of that and think of all the things that I’ve done, all the hard matches that I’ve won, I personally get a lot of confidence and I feel so proud.”

Next up for Sherif at the Caja Magica on Friday is a second-round clash with in-form Ukrainian Marta Kostyuk, who is enjoying a career-high ranking of 21 this week, thanks to a runner-up showing in Stuttgart and San Diego, and a semi-final at Indian Wells.

Updated: May 08, 2024, 5:47 AM