As part of our buildup to the Tokyo Olympics we will be profiling Arab athletes and para-athletes as well as those from the Mena region hoping to make it to this summer's Games
In the summer of 2019, Egypt’s Mayar Sherif flew to Morocco with one clear goal in mind: to secure the singles gold medal in tennis at the African Games, which would earn her a spot at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.
Ranked around No 250 in the world at the time, Sherif was the favourite for the African title and had a target on her back. No tennis player has ever represented Egypt at the Olympic Games and Sherif entered the competition knowing that history was on the line.
A week later, both Sherif and her countryman Mohamed Safwat were crowned champions in their respective singles events and will become the first Egyptian tennis players to compete at the Olympics when they head to Tokyo this summer (given they maintain a top-300 ranking and good standing with their federation).
When news broke of the postponement of the Olympics last year because of the pandemic, thousands of athletes around the world were left disappointed, their dreams deferred to an unknown future.
For Sherif, an extra 12 months came as a welcome reprieve. Her first season as a pro was in 2019 – having spent the previous four years playing college tennis in the United States – and she spent it competing on the lower levels of the tour. Granted, she won more than 70 matches on the ITF circuit on her debut season, but facing top-50 players at the Olympics is a completely different beast.
In 2020, Sherif got her first taste of the big leagues when she qualified for her first WTA tournament in Prague, and later booked a maiden spot in a Grand Slam main draw, becoming the first Egyptian woman to do so, with a heroic qualifying campaign at Roland Garros. She stretched world No 4 Karolina Pliskova to three sets in the first round in Paris before bowing out, leaving a lasting impression on players and fans alike.
Sherif, 24, closed out 2020 by clinching her biggest title to date at the $100k tournament in Charleston and started this season by successfully qualifying for the Australian Open.
"For me, I'm trying as much as possible to reach the highest level possible until I get to the Olympics," Sherif told The National via Zoom.
“I think it came in my favour that the Olympics got postponed by a year. If you compare how I was at the start of last year, and how I was at the end of it, I was a very different player.
“So one year would give me so much. I want to get my best out of the next six months so I can be ready for the Olympics; and God willing, if I do well, it would be a dream to get a medal.”
Last year, the Cairene truly exemplified the idea of making the best of a bad situation. The coronavirus forced the world to a screeching halt but Sherif found a way to keep moving.
“The Covid period allowed me to work on myself so much, physically and technically,” she said. “You would have never had that much time to work on something very technical. So I used that time well and it took me time to get the results.
"I was 160, 170 in the world, I knew I had the level, and my coach kept telling me, ‘wait, wait, be patient’, and I was like, ‘the results aren’t coming, they aren’t coming’.
“So I felt like I was too excited sometimes on the court, I was too nervous at times … eventually I got used to handling this and knowing that the most important thing is to have the level, and the results will come alone. And the results did come, but at the end of the year.”
As Sherif’s ranking continues to rise – she is a career-high No 128 at the moment – so is her popularity.
Her Grand Slam debut at the French Open last September thrust her into the spotlight back home. She received a nod from Liverpool star Mohamed Salah on Twitter, was a guest on some of Egypt’s biggest talk shows and signed a slew of sponsorship deals with major companies like Vodafone, Peugeot and Allianz.
The kind of backing she has received over the past few months is unheard of in Egypt for a tennis player, and she hopes this can lead to further support for the younger generation.
“I was so happy with how the people welcomed me back home; especially by the kids,” Sherif said. “To have a kid come up to me and tell me, ‘I love you so much and you’re my idol’, to me, that was very, very heartwarming.
"To have the younger generation look at me that way, and tell me they want to achieve the same; that was very, very nice, because I feel that hasn’t really happened to a tennis player in Egypt before.
“So I felt like I was someone special to the people, and people are looking up to me. Of course that places some pressure on you and it took me a while to learn how to get used to it and how to act."
Sherif has navigated that pressure with great poise so far. With the eyes of 100 million Egyptians on her, she passed her first big test of 2021 with flying colours, winning her three Australian Open qualifying rounds in Dubai to punch her ticket to Melbourne. She is particularly proud of her efforts because those victories came on hard courts – a surface that poses a different set of challenges, compared to her beloved clay.
“Mentally, I try as much as possible, not to think about the attention. Because once you get stuck into thinking about people, what they think and what they expect of you, the fact that they’re watching me … it’s going to go wrong," Sherif said. "So I prefer to stay in my own world, just how it was before, keeping focused on my match, my tennis, my plans, and all that."
Her Spanish coach, Justo Gonzalez, has played a crucial role in keeping Sherif laser-focused on the task at hand, while exuding confidence and attitude during matches.
Sherif has an intimidating presence on court. From her passionate first pumps – often accompanied by a variety of ‘yallas’, ‘vamoses’ and ‘allez’s’ – to her piercing death stares and her signature curly hair flying under visor, she makes sure her body language conveys just how fierce she is on the inside.
“I think Mayar has something so big, that is the character,” said Gonzalez, who believes his charge has what it takes to handle the pressure of expectation.
“I think this is part of the game, part of the success. If you really want to show everybody that you are ready to be part of this world, first of all you have to accept that people now follow you.
“Plus I think Mayar in Egypt is something special because she is the first women’s tennis player doing something great. It’s a challenge.
“She is able to handle this. She is so focused on her work. We love this; ultimately, if you don’t love the attention for what you play, if you don’t love to be in the middle of all this, wishing to play on good courts, great matches, great opponents … if you don’t wish for this, you don’t want to be a tennis player.”
Sherif does indeed thrive under the spotlight. When she walked on centre court at the French Open to take on Pliskova, she felt like she belonged. And when she heads to Tokyo this summer for the Olympics, she’ll be relishing the opportunity to make more history for her country.
Are there any athletes she hopes to bump into at the Olympic Village?
“For me, I don’t know, I didn’t really have anyone in mind to go and talk to," she said. "Because I always imagined myself being one of those people, and this is who I want to be – I want someone to come to me and want to ask me questions and talk to me."