Karim-Mohamed Maamoun: My life as a professional tennis player with type 1 diabetes

Egypt's No 2 on how he has changed from being ashamed and hiding the condition to sharing his story and helping others pursue their dreams

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When Egyptian tennis player Karim-Mohamed Maamoun was first diagnosed with type 1 diabetes at the age of 19, his parents wanted him to quit the sport professionally.

He had just wrapped up his junior career, during which he peaked at No 26 in the world, and was looking to make the leap to the men’s pro tour. No one in Maamoun’s family is diabetic so his diagnosis, understandably, came as a huge surprise.

“My parents were worried about my health and didn’t want me at first to continue pursuing a professional tennis career. They wanted to make sure that first and foremost I was healthy,” Maamoun, now 28 and still competing professionally, told The National.

“It took me a couple of months to get used to everything and with time, I started learning more about the insulin dose I needed to take, and what I should eat, and how I should train. But it wasn’t easy at first and there was a big possibility that I wouldn’t continue with my tennis career.”

Maamoun did not quit, and instead, educated himself about everything he needed to do in order to deal with diabetes, while traveling the world competing on the tennis circuit. Initially, he wasn’t eating much because he was still figuring out how to control his glucose levels, which meant he felt hungry all the time. He underwent a complete lifestyle change, following a strict diet, and diligently checking his blood sugar, to make sure he kept it under control.

He is currently Egypt’s No 2 player, and is the fourth-highest ranked Arab man. He hit a career-high ranking of 225 in the world two years ago, which led him to his Grand Slam qualifying debut at the 2018 Australian Open. He has scooped six ITF titles this year and won the silver medal at the African Games in August.

Karim Maamoun

He recently shared his story with American tennis player Noah Rubin, whose online platform ‘Behind the Racquet’ aims to give athletes like Maamoun the space to talk about their stories “on their own terms, while also giving fans an opportunity to relate to a player on a deeper level”.

But Maamoun hasn’t always been this comfortable discussing his journey with diabetes. In fact, at first, he did not share his diagnosis with anyone outside his family.

“I didn’t want to tell anybody, I was kind of ashamed and embarrassed about it,” says the Giza-native.

“I viewed it in a way that I was sick, not that I had a condition that can be controlled and dealt with. I wasn’t comfortable sharing the news and felt it was better to keep it to myself.”

But Maamoun couldn’t keep it a secret for too long and an incident at a tournament in Germany saw him tell a friend – his compatriot and Davis Cup team-mate Sherif Sabry – about his diagnosis for the first time.

“I felt really sick, my blood sugar level dropped significantly. I was lying in bed feeling dizzy and sweating and he had no idea what was going on,” recalls Maamoun.

“I asked him to get me something sweet and I managed to get my sugar level up a bit. He was obviously worried and shocked and could see me shaking in bed and didn’t know what was happening. So I told him about it, and he was the first person I told outside my family.”

Maamoun eventually confided in a few players and coaches, so they would know what to do in case of emergencies but now, he is happy to talk more openly about his diabetes, in order to show others that it is a condition that shouldn’t stop them from pursuing their dreams.

Asked how diabetes impacts his life as a professional tennis player, Maamoun said: “The biggest obstacle is how to control the situation during matches. At first, I used to check my blood sugar on every changeover, by self-administering finger prick tests. It took a lot of time, starting up the device, then doing the test, then checking my glucose levels – I didn’t have time to catch my breath between games, or drink water, or think about my game plan, or assess my strategy. I had no time during the 90-second changeovers to do anything.”

Now Maamoun wears a blood glucose monitoring censor that allows him to check his levels without a finger prick test, which has bought him some valuable time between games during his matches.

But he still has to deal with unexpected surges in his blood sugar on court, which recently occurred during a crucial Davis Cup tie between Egypt and Slovenia, that could have promoted the North Africans to Group I. Maamoun was facing world No 75 Aljaz Bedene at the Gezira Club in Cairo when it happened, and he had to quit the match and was rushed off to the hospital.

“What happened in Davis Cup [in September] was extremely difficult. Being forced to retire while representing Egypt, in an important match like that, playing on home soil, it wasn’t easy for me,” Maamoun said.

“It was a decision taken between myself, our team captain, and the chair umpire. I had to retire because I was in a very dangerous spot. My glucose level was very high and it wouldn’t drop during the match. I took the dose and it still wouldn’t drop so it was getting quite dangerous, especially for my heart and the other organs in my body.

“It was rough. Hopefully this doesn’t happen again. I’m working with my doctor to try and make sure this doesn’t happen again. But retiring from a match while representing Egypt is the worst feeling.”

Still, Maamoun is able to keep things in perspective, and is optimistic about his future in the sport. He has a message for his fellow diabetics in the Arab world: “At first I saw diabetes as something really tough to deal with, and that it put me at a disadvantage compared to other players.

“But I soon realised that if I’m eating healthy and being careful, then it doesn’t have to affect my life negatively. The trick is to see diabetes as my best friend, I shouldn’t take it as a disease. It’s just that I have something that I need to control, and if I do, then I can lead a normal life.

“I would advise Arab players not to quit their careers because of something like this. If anything, sport can only help the situation, because it’s one of the most important things for diabetics. So don’t let it stop you from chasing your goals.”

World Diabetes Day is November 14