Some time last year, Egyptian tennis player Mayar Sherif and her family were gathered around a television watching a tennis match. She was unranked at the time, having stepped away from the professional tour to play college tennis in the United States.
Admiring the fancy centre court displayed on the screen, Sherif’s aunt asked her: “When will I get to sit in that players’ box, Mayar?”
“Next year, khalto (auntie), next year,” Sherif assured her.
“Dream on!” Sherif’s sister added sarcastically.
One year later, Sherif is ranked inside the world’s top-200 and is preparing to compete in her first grand slam women’s qualifying draw at next month’s Australian Open.
For her, dreaming was never going to be the hard part; it’s the confidence she has in herself that sets her apart from other aspiring players in the region.
"Belief for us back home doesn't come easy. What we see on TV, the top players and all that… that seems very far away from us, but it's actually not that far," the 23-year-old Sherif told The National during this week's Al Habtoor Tennis Challenge in Dubai, where she lost to top seed Kristina Mladenovic on Monday.
Sherif’s remarkable journey this season provides ample evidence for that statement. Starting 2019 unranked after graduating with a degree in sports medicine from Pepperdine University, the Cairo native shot up the rankings to land at a career-high No 189 in November.
In the span of 10 months, she amassed a massive 71 match-wins (across all levels, including Fed Cup and qualifying) to become the first ever Egyptian woman to crack the top-200 in the world rankings.
From the end of April to the beginning of July, Sherif went on a 26-match winning run that included a stretch where she captured 45 sets in a row. Those staggering numbers are hard to conceive but Sherif was on a mission and eager for more.
“I was expecting that I would reach where I am now, and that I would do even better, but I didn’t expect it to happen so fast,” she said. “You know when you feel hungry, hungry for matches, hungry to reach a certain level, you want to win. I was in a state of hunger.
“Once I got in shape, the tennis was there. I just had to get in shape, and I had to get some confidence, some belief, and then I flew.”
When Sherif kicked off her season by playing the lowest level of ITF tournaments in Sharm El Sheikh, she was coming off of a five-month shoulder injury and was out of shape. She hadn’t played a professional tournament since late 2017 and was fresh out of university, where she made history for Pepperdine as one of just two women to make the NCAA Championship singles semi-finals.
Upon graduation, she reached out to Justo Gonzalez, a Spanish coach she had worked with seven years ago during a short stint of training in Alicante. Sherif was ranked in the top-50 of the ITF World Junior rankings as a teenager, and Gonzalez has believed in her ever since.
“He gives me so much of his time, so much passion, he coaches me from the heart. That’s something hard to find on tour. He doesn’t see his work with me as a business,” she said of her mentor, who began traveling with her full-time last April.
“My coach plays a very big role in giving me so much belief and confidence.”
That confidence was seriously tested when Sherif went to Rabat to contest the African Games. A gold medal in singles would secure her a spot at next year’s Tokyo Olympics, provided she is ranked in the top-300 on June 8, 2020.
She suffered an infection and played the whole tournament on antibiotics, but walked away with yet another piece of history, as Egypt’s first ever tennis player – alongside Mohamed Safwat – to qualify for an Olympic Games.
“I went to Morocco knowing I have to win and that’s a kind of pressure. I knew I was the best player there and was expected to win," she said. "So to play with this kind of pressure, with so much on the line, Olympics and history, it was a different thing that I’ve never experienced and it’s good that I experienced it to learn how to play with that kind of pressure."
Looking ahead to 2020, Sherif will try to treat her first grand slam appearance as any other tournament and stay focused on her goals. “I don’t want to make it into this big thing in my head, ‘oh wow, a grand slam’, because if I do that, it’ll all just blow up in my face,” she said.
“Our goal for the year, is to finish it in the top-100. But that’s not the ultimate goal because I know I have the capability to do better than that. Maybe I’ll have a bad year, but the most important thing is that I know I have the level and can compete at a higher level. It’s going to come now, or later. The most important thing is that I improve, and not stay stagnant in my place.”
Considering everything she’s accomplished this year, it’s fair to say stagnation won’t be a problem for Sherif moving forward.