Last year, on a midsummer day in Cluj-Napoca in northern Romania, tennis player Mayar Sherif made history by becoming the first Egyptian woman to reach a WTA final.
On the same day, thousands of miles to the east in Tokyo, Feryal Abdelaziz became the first Egyptian woman to win Olympic gold when she emerged victorious in the karate competition.
Women’s sport in Egypt is enjoying an unprecedented high, and Sherif, who kicks off her Australian Open campaign on Tuesday against Heather Watson, is honored to be playing her part in the movement.
“I feel the pressure and the responsibility. I feel like I want to reach much higher than where I am right now, but I still need to work and learn to so many things,” the 25-year-old Cairo player told Arab News ahead of her Melbourne opener.
“But I’m striving for more. I’m not satisfied, I’m not feeling like, ‘Oh, this is so good, this is so amazing.’ No, I’m always looking forward and always looking for more,” she said.
That unrelenting drive to improve is what makes Sherif one of the standout Arab athletes at the moment, and explains why she became the first Egyptian woman to be ranked in the top 100.
Sherif, ranked 62 in the world, is now able to gain direct entry into most of the biggest tournaments on tour — unfamiliar territory for the rising star.
Her trip to Australia so far has resulted in two opening round defeats. However, her loss to world No.37 Liudmila Samsonova in Adelaide last week was a tight affair that saw Sherif challenge her higher-ranked Russian opponent.
“It’s not easy, of course; there are expectations. But I want to go forward and move up the rankings,” Sherif said, explaining her hopes for the 2022 season.
“But I have to think on my goals, on what I have to do. It’s a good opportunity to be directly into the main draws, which will give me experience. Maybe it’s not going to pay off now, but it’s going to pay off soon, I hope. It’s going to come.”
Against Samsonova, Sherif fired 14 aces and displayed a smooth rhythm on her serve throughout the match, getting broken just once in the final game of the contest.
“I’ve been working on improving the style of my serve for the past two years, and more recently we were working almost every day on the serve, to have the kind of consistencythat I had in the match against Samsonova,” said Sherif.
“The work has paid off. The last couple of years I wasn’t so consistent on my serve. We kept changing little things. The style of my serve was disastrous, so we were changing one thing after the other and now, thankfully, it’s almost complete.”
Adjusting to the WTA will take time and Sherif said that stepping up to the top tier of the women’s competition will require greater attention to detail.
“The little things matter. Like against Samsonova, I had many break points in the first set. I had a set point, but in the important moments I didn’t play well. These are the little things that matter. If you have a chance, you have to take it because if you miss the chance, it might not come back,” she said.
“At ITFs, you can miss one or two balls and still win the game. Here, you miss a couple of balls, it’s not going to work. You have to be consistent all the match, not giving anything away.”
Transitioning to the WTA tour is not just about improving her level to compete with the game’s best, but also about making friends on the circuit and getting comfortable with her new surroundings.
“I’m getting to know more people. Last week I played doubles with (Tereza) Martincova. We literally met up five minutes before our first match. We were like, ‘Which side will you play? The backhand side? Great, let’s do it.’ And it turned out well,” said Sherif, who made it to the doubles final of the Melbourne 250 event alongside Martincova.
“Of course, a chance like this, I wouldn’t have had it if my ranking wasn’t high enough to get me into these WTA tournaments. I’m playing doubles for the first time at the Australian Open, people are starting to call me up to see if we should play together, so naturally I’m making friends, I’m knowing more people. And Justo (Gonzalez), my coach, talks to everyone, everywhere, so he’s making friends for me.”
Sherif is not daunted by the prospect of facing tougher opposition now that she is rising through the rankings and has a clear vision of what she hopes to accomplish this year.
“I want to step on court and compete; I want to feel the competition, it doesn’t matter, win or lose, I want to get experience. I want to be there,” she said.
“Consistency throughout the year is very important, and that’s something I didn’t do a very good job at last year. And the start of this year, I’m starting a little slow, that’s something I need to work on, to start the season more fit, more competitive, I would say.”
She added: “And I want to go throughout the year with the same rhythm. Because last year, the first six months, I didn’t compete at all, I got COVID-19 in the middle of that period, but still I could have done better. So, hopefully, I try to compete all year round and get points from everywhere I play.”
Sherif said that she is willing to step down to some of the smaller tournaments, such as the $100,000 or $125,000 events on the ITF circuit, because she believes these will help her gain match toughness.
“I enjoy playing $100k or $125k series to get rhythm and confidence before moving up to the WTA 250s. Just because my ranking is 60-something doesn’t means I won’t play these $100ks or even $60ks,” she said.
“Competition is always good, to feel those victories, to get the feel for those important moments, and ultimately, those were the kind of matches that got me into competition mode last year.”
Sherif spent most of her offseason training in Alicante, but had two weeks in Cairo, where she hosted an event that brought together all of her sponsors and backers, and some key figures in the Egyptian sports industry, to thank them for their support.
“It’s amazing, because every time I go to Cairo, people want to meet me, they want to congratulate and tell me they’re proud of me. I always get these kind of comments when I’m there, and that gives you a feeling of, not on a tennis level, but on a personal level, that I really did something big for my country,” she said.
“It’s beyond ranking and winning or losing tournaments. So that is always amazing.”