CAIRO: After Mayar Sherif smashed one final ace, she turned to the crowd assembled around Court 6 at the Australian Open, and let out a huge “allez.”
Her small group of raucous fans had witnessed history unfold before their eyes at Melbourne Park on Tuesday, as Sherif became the first Egyptian woman to win a main draw match at a Grand Slam.
“It means a lot because this was a barrier that I had to pass, a mental barrier,” Sherif said in her press conference after overcoming French qualifier Chloe Paquet 7-5, 7-5 en route to the Australian Open second round.
“With the conditions that are here it was very, very tough to adapt to it, especially to adapt my game to it. It took us a while. Courts are faster, the heat, everything happens so fast, it’s very tough to control the ball. I’m very, very happy with my accomplishment and I’m going for more.”
The 24-year-old, who also made history for her nation last September when she qualified for Roland Garros and became the first Egyptian woman to make it to the main draw at a major, has been receiving unprecedented attention from fans and sponsors back home.
Tennis is popular in Egypt, but rarely has a player caught the eye of the public the way Sherif has, her exploits even prompting Liverpool footballer Mohamed Salah to congratulate her on Twitter during her historic run in Paris.
She backed up her French Open result by storming to the $100,000 ITF title in Charleston in November, and started 2021 by winning three Australian Open qualifying rounds — relocated to Dubai — before hopping on a plane to Melbourne.
Sherif’s game is better suited to clay, which makes her recent success on hard courts in Dubai and Australia all the more impressive.
During the offseason, she inked deals with a list of sponsors including Vodafone, Allianz, Peugeot and Ora Developers. When she landed in Cairo, there were scores of fans waiting for her with signs at the airport. She appeared on the biggest talk shows in the country and even had a surprise Zoom call with Salah, courtesy of their common sponsor, Vodafone, later meeting the star in person.
Sherif described it as a “priceless” experience and walked away from the chat with the “Egyptian King” with invaluable tips.
“I was shocked when he told me that he has been watching tennis, and has been following my matches and he told me that when I go to Wimbledon, if he’s in the UK, he will come and watch. He is such a down-to-earth and humble human being. I really appreciate his support,” Sherif told Arab News.
“I asked him how he handled the expectations and the pressure, and he told me he always visualized himself, since he was young, that he could make it this far. He told me that how you think, mentally, is what will eventually get you there. That’s the most important thing, because ultimately anybody can do anything if you have that level, but what puts you there is your mental effort.”
Egyptian tennis fans in Melbourne are already making plans to attend Sherif’s second round against Slovenian world No.104 Kaja Juvan, scheduled for Thursday.
Mina Nagib, an Egyptian living in Melbourne, has attended every Australian Open for the past 10 years, and was there for Sherif’s triumph over Paquet on Tuesday. He says he has gathered a group of at least 50 Egyptians that will join him at Sherif’s next match.
“It felt unreal,” Nagib said. “It was honestly an honor to be at the match today. She made us so proud, and she deserves all the love and support that she could get from her fans here in Melbourne. She’s an unbelievable and mature character, and she’s got so much potential and charisma.”
For Sherif, this kind of attention is something she has strived for her entire career. While others might have crumbled under that kind of pressure or responsibility, Sherif thrives amid such adulation and she showed her appreciation on Tuesday by taking a photo with every single fan that turned up for her match.
“It’s not a burden at all; it’s completely the opposite,” said the world No.131. “I feel very supported by the Egyptian people, from my partners, my sponsors. It’s been great, and honestly it’s just pushing me forward and forward.”
Sherif was stunned by the backing she received at Melbourne Park, not realizing her fans would turn up Down Under.
“It was an incredible feeling. I felt like, ‘oh wow, people know me here in Melbourne? They came all the way to the tournament to come watch?’ And it’s not like they came and just sat there and clapped. They were so happy and they were so proud and were with me every single point. That gave me so much support,” Sherif said.
“My opponent would double fault and they would cheer loudly, and she’s like, ‘what’s happening? This isn’t war’,” she added with a laugh. “I completely enjoy it, I love it. I love the attention from the people so I always enjoy it when these conditions are there.”