Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 February 2020

Mohamed Safwat ready for any challenge as he keeps Egypt tennis flag flying high

First Egyptian to win a Challenger title since 1996 moves up world rankings

Egypt's Mohamed Safwat hits a return against France's Gregoire Barrere during their men's singles match on day one of the Australian Open in Melbourne on January 20. AFP
Egypt's Mohamed Safwat hits a return against France's Gregoire Barrere during their men's singles match on day one of the Australian Open in Melbourne on January 20. AFP

Just three weeks after making a historic appearance at the Australian Open, Mohamed Safwat etched his name again in the record books by becoming the first Egyptian since 1996 to win a Challenger title.

The 29-year-old made his Challenger debut a decade ago, and has battled through 133 tournaments at that level before he finally tasted success on his 134th appearance, defeating home favourite Alex Bolt to lift the trophy in Launceston, Australia on Sunday.

For a long time, Safwat hovered around the 200 mark in the world rankings, but he started this season with a newfound purpose, fueled by his triumph at the African Games last August, that made him the first Egyptian male tennis player in history to secure a spot at the Olympic Games. That achievement “unlocked something” within him, he says, and the results soon reflected that.

He ended 2019 by reaching the semi-finals and final in back-to-back Challenger events in Shenzhen and Helsinki, respectively. He then kicked off 2020 by becoming the first Egyptian since Ismail El Shafei in 1978 to feature in the Australian Open main draw.

Now, Safwat hit a new milestone by clinching a maiden Challenger title – a first for an Egyptian since Tamer El Sawy’s victories in New York 24 years ago.

“This for me is a special thing. It’s more special because it comes with a career-high ranking, I’ll be 130 in the world. It’s coming with a lot of things. It’s coming after great results at the Australian Open, and then a decent one after [in Burnie],” Safwat said after his win on Sunday.

“So it’s a lot of things happening in the last month. A lot of things are changing and this one feels very special and I probably can’t express how I feel and I can’t find the correct words to describe all this.”

His struggle for words is understandable. Hailing from a region that lacks the structure and support system that is necessary to nurture young talent, Safwat somehow found a way to shoot to 130 in the world, and develop a game that makes him competitive at an elite level.

His run in Launceston is all the more impressive because it came on the heels of a disappointing first round defeat at the Australian Open, where Safwat let a significant lead slip against Frenchman Gregoire Barrere and eventually lost in four sets. It was a painful result, but the North African rebounded in remarkable fashion.

Egyptian tennis player Mohamed Safwat. Courtesy Tennis Australia
Egyptian tennis player Mohamed Safwat beat Alex Bolt in Launceston. Courtesy Tennis Australia

“I was very frustrated after the Australian Open, because I was a set and a double-break 4-0 up. I served for the set two times, had set points in the fourth. It was frustration of course, but I had to let go,” said Safwat.

“Because I wouldn’t be able to win the tournament if my mind is still stuck on the Australian Open and the match I lost there.

“I just had to look into what happened, and make sure it doesn’t happen again. Like today [in the Launceston final], I was 7-6 up, 4-0, and the first thing that came to my mind was Barrere. I was 4-0 against Barrere and I lost. I was like, ‘I have to make sure that doesn’t happen today’.

“It’s a learning experience and that’s how I move on. But it hurt, a loss like that hurts.”

Safwat had lost his first three Challenger finals – in Kenitra 2016, Anning 2018 and Helsinki 2019 – and could have crumbled under the pressure of trying to put that winless record behind him.

“No, on the contrary, I went into this final and said, ‘I want to win this final and I’ll play like my life depended on it, this one is not going to go away’,” he explains.

Safwat is already in Bengaluru, where he is seeded 14 in the Challenger event there. He requested a wildcard for the Dubai Duty Free Tennis Championships main draw, and will come to the Emirates to train, a week ahead of the ATP showpiece.

He says his maiden Challenger title provides a welcome boost to his confidence, and has made him even hungrier to push further. El Shafei was the last, and only, Egyptian to rank in the top 100 (in the 1970s), and Safwat is hoping he can break into that ranking bracket by the end of the year.

“I don’t know how many points I need to get to the top 100 but I think it’s close, you can see it’s 30 spots, it’s not like 100 spots you need to jump. You feel you’re close and that will give me the motivation to keep fighting and to win more matches,” said the Mansoura native.

Updated: February 10, 2020 05:20 PM

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