Mohamed Safwat missed out on a chance to qualify for the French Open and become the first Egyptian since 1996 to feature in a Grand Slam main draw, but he is still clinging onto the slim chance of making it as a lucky loser.
Four lucky losers have already made it into the draw and Safwat, who was drawn seventh in the lucky loser lot, will need three more players to withdraw in order to get in.
The 27-year-old lost in the third round of qualifying on Friday to Argentina’s world No. 109 Guido Andreozzi 6-4, 6-4 at on Court 12 at Roland Garros.
Safwat created 11 break points on his opponent’s serve but could only break once throughout the match. The Egyptian world No. 182 saved 10 out of 13 break points before succumbing in one hour and 39 minutes in hot and humid conditions in Paris.
“As a clay-court player, he’s very good. I had a lot of chances to break in the first set, but I was speaking with my coach just now and told him that I think my level went down a bit on the big moments,” Safwat told Sport360 after the match.
“Second set I was up a break. It was small things, I think I stepped down, I was too cautious and my quality went down a bit and against such players if you step down just in one ball he will take it. I think that was the key.”
This is the second time Safwat has fallen at the final hurdle in qualifying at a Grand Slam, having also done so at Wimbledon in 2016.
He has made lots of progress on clay this season – a surface he has historically struggled with – and his achievements in recent weeks included a runner-up showing at a $150k Challenger on clay in Anning, China.
Despite being visibly disappointed over his defeat to Andreozzi on Friday, Safwat sees many positives from his qualifying campaign this week.
“It was a good week for me. I’ve been making a lot of changes on clay, I improved on clay. I had two tough matches before this one, so it was a good week for me. I feel there’s still a long way to go but such matches show you what you need to improve, what you need to do, what’s here, what’s missing, what you need to add to go up,” said Safwat.
Tamer El Sawy is the last Egyptian to contest a Grand Slam main draw, having played in both the French Open and US Open back in 1996.
Safwat knows he’s inching closer and closer to making history for the North African nation but is trying not to get overwhelmed by the magnitude of what he’s targeting.
“Of course it was a bit of pressure on me compared to other matches. But I tried to deal with it, I tried to remind myself what I’m trying to do, not looking too far ahead, what I’ve been working on to improve and to progress. But it was of course a dream, passion to play in the main draw to qualify but I’m sure it’s not the last one, there’s still many to come,” he admitted.
“I’m trying to isolate myself from media, Facebook, because I like to focus on what I need to do. I feel if I start to look too much outside, then I will be caring about this or that, to please people, it’s tough to make everyone happy. So I just try to focus on myself and see what I need to do.”
When I note that it’s been 22 years since an Egyptian played a Slam main draw, he quickly responds with a smile: “One day…”
Safwat hit a new career-high ranking of 174 earlier this month and believes he’s on an upward trajectory. Armed with a new coach, Austrian ex-world No. 17 Gilbert Schaller, the Egyptian is pleased with his progress so far. Schaller isn’t just helping Safwat on court, but also the decision-making off the court of when to stop for a training block and when to compete.
“I made some changes at the end of last year, I changed my coach. I’ve been with him since December. He’s trying to add new things to my game. Clay court I think was my weakest surface, I took a decision to start the clay-court season – that’s one of the reasons I didn’t play Davis Cup, we believe I need to be prepared, otherwise I go play Davis Cup indoors and then go straight to play tournaments,” Safwat explained.
“I just needed to make the stop and it’s unlucky that it was the week of Davis Cup but I feel that it was necessary to do that and it paid off. I started to improve, I think this is my seventh or eighth week on clay and I’m improving every week.
“Every week I play I feel I have a chance. I think it was needed that stop, and that’s what he’s trying, to add new tools for me, to make me an all-round player. That’s why I feel that in yesterday’s match, the first round match, I felt a big difference against such an opponent because I played him before and I felt different on court with the things I added to my game.”
His opponent on Friday, Andreozzi, is a player who had won 26 of his 30 previous matches on clay – a run that included two Challenger titles.
“Today, maybe he is a better player on clay but he has shown me something, what’s missing, what I need to add to get this one level above. So that’s what he’s trying to do with me and that’s what I needed a long time ago but everything comes with time.”
Safwat, who trains with Schaller in Vienna, will play for two more weeks on clay before he starts preparing for Wimbledon qualifying.
“I’ll try to play something before Wimbledon. Either Challengers or ATP, I’ll sign in and we’ll see,” he said. “I always love to play on grass but it’s always about the ranking because everyone wants to play the grass season, so that’s why I’m staying for two more weeks on clay, and then the week before Wimbledon I would really love to play if I have a chance.”
The French Open draw was revealed on Thursday night at the beautiful Orangerie building in the Botanical Gardens adjacent to Roland Garros.
A suited up Rafael Nadal, who is looking to become just the second player in history – alongside Margaret Court – to win 11 titles at the same Grand Slam, made an appearance at the ceremony, together with women’s defending champion Jelena Ostapenko.
Here are the men’s draw main talking points ahead of the tournament’s Sunday kick-off in Paris’ 16th arrondissement.
RAFA DODGES CONTENDERS
The draw gods were kind to Nadal and his quest for a record-extending 11th Roland Garros crown.
The reigning champion and top seed has seen the majority of his toughest rivals all land on the opposite side of the draw, with Dominic Thiem, Alexander Zverev, Novak Djokovic, Kei Nishikori and David Goffin all in the bottom half.
The Mallorcan, whose win-loss tally at the event is a stunning 79-2, enters Roland Garros with a 19-1 record on clay this season. That one defeat came to Thiem, in the Madrid quarter-finals earlier this month, and he was pushed to a rare three-setter by Zverev in the Rome final last week.
Nadal’s potential path to La Undecima looks like this:
R1: Dolgopolov; R2: J Sousa/Pella; R3: Gasquet; R4: Shapovalov/Sock; QF: Anderson/Schwartzman; SF: Cilic/Del Potro; F: Zverev/Dimitrov/Djokovic/Goffin/Thiem
He’d definitely take that!
TOUGH FOR THIEM
The Austrian No. 7 seed, who has made back-to-back Roland Garros semi-finals over the past years, shares a quarter with Madrid champion Alexander Zverev. But before a potential last-eight meeting with the 21-year-old German, Thiem might have to overcome dangerous Next Gen star Stefanos Tsitsipas in the second round. Tsitsipas defeated Thiem en route to the Barcelona final last month.
Monte Carlo runner-up Nishikori possibly awaits Thiem in the fourth round before a potential blockbuster quarter-final with Zverev.
SIZZLING SASCHA CAN SCORE ONE FOR THE YOUTH
After reaching the semis in Monte Carlo, Zverev made three finals in three weeks, winning Munich and Madrid back-to-back before falling to Nadal in the Rome final.
The young German is an impressive 17-3 on clay this season, with two of those defeats coming to Nadal (in Davis Cup and Rome). Zverev, whose success on tour has seen him claim three Masters 1000 crowns and rise to No. 3 in the world, is yet to make it past the fourth round at any Grand Slam.
But his form in the build-up to Paris places him as one of the biggest threats to Nadal’s throne.
If Zverev wins the Roland Garros title, he would be the youngest men’s singles Grand Slam champion since a 20-year-old Del Potro won the US Open in 2009.
With Federer out of action, Zverev is the No. 2 seed in Paris. It’s the first time since 2005 that someone outside the ‘Big Four’ is among the top two seeds at Roland Garros.
OPPORTUNITY FOR DJOKOVIC
Djokovic’s search for form gathered some steam last week when he reached the semi-finals in Rome and he could try to build more momentum this upcoming fortnight in Paris.
The Serb will be looking to become the first man in the Open Era to win at least two titles at each of the four Grand Slams.
Djokovic opens his campaign against a qualifier. If he wants to make it out of his half of the draw, he may have to overcome the likes of former French Open runner-up David Ferrer, No. 13 seed Roberto Bautista Agut, who has had success against Djokovic in the past, Dimitrov, Goffin, and Thiem/Nishikori/Zverev.
It’s a draw that will require lots of grinding from the 2016 champion, but it is also one that can give him doses of confidence with every passing round.
STAN V GGL THE SEQUEL
Last year’s runner-up Stan Wawrinka has a rematch with Spaniard Guillermo Garcia-Lopez in a repeat of their opening round in Paris in 2014. Wawrinka, who had knee surgery last August, lost that 2014 showdown and he enters this clash with Garcia-Lopez with just three matches contested in the last three months.
Wawrinka leads their head-to-head 7-3 overall.
DIMITROV’S PARIS PREDICAMENT
The fourth-seeded Bulgarian has never had much luck in Paris, losing in the first round in four of his seven appearances at Roland Garros, and never making it past the third round. Dimitrov opens against Serbia’s Viktor Troicki, who defeated the Bulgarian in their first round here in 2016.
NO. 1 ON THE LINE
As has been the case throughout this clay season, Nadal will have to defend his title in Paris in order to hold onto his No. 1 ranking. Any other result will see Roger Federer return to the top spot.
FIRST ROUNDS TO WATCH
Borna Coric (CRO) v Philipp Kohlschreiber (GER x22)
Alex de Minaur (AUS) v Kyle Edmund (GBR x16)
Grigor Dimitrov (BUL) v Viktor Troicki (SRB)
Sam Querrey (USA x12) v Frances Tiafoe (USA)
Rafael Nadal (ESP x1) v Alexandr Dolgopolov (UKR)
Malek Jaziri (TUN) v Mikhail Youzhny (RUS)
11 – Marin Cilic is looking to become the 11th man in the Open Era to reach the final of each of the four Slams at least once.
65 – Feliciano Lopez matches Roger Federer’s Open Era streak of 65 consecutive Grand Slams contested.
PROJECTED QUARTER-FINALS (BY SEED)
Rafael Nadal (ESP x1) v Kevin Anderson (RSA x6)
Marin Cilic (CRO x3) v Juan Martin del Potro (ARG x5)
Grigor Dimitrov (BUL x4) v David Goffin (BEL x8)
Alexander Zverev (GER x2) v Dominic Thiem (AUT x7)
When a 20-year-old unseeded Jelena Ostapenko pummeled her way through the French Open draw to lift a maiden Grand Slam trophy, the tennis world stood back in awe – not just of her achievement, but the manner in which she achieved it.
A player, who turned 20 midway through the tournament, ranked 47 in the world, and yet to win a tour-level title in her young career thus far, took out the likes of Sam Stosur, Caroline Wozniacki and Simona Halep, firing 299 winners over seven matches, to clinch the 2017 Roland Garros crown.
That fortnight, Ostapenko looked almost careless in her shot-making, and fearless in her approach and delivery.
Nearly 12 months on, the Latvian is ranked No.5 in the world and has a new coach, David Taylor, on her team, working with her alongside her mother, Jelena Jakoleva.
The 45-year-old Taylor, who previously worked with Stosur and Ana Ivanovic, is amused by this younger generation of tennis players.
“Absolutely no respect for anyone in terms of tennis ability. People used to be scared and now that’s completely gone. It’s a striking difference in the generation,” explained Taylor to a small group of reporters in Rome last week.
“They walk on, they really believe they can beat top-10 players, and that’s the biggest change and they’re going to come out swinging.
“I think Aljona (another way to say Ostapenko’s first name) encapsulated all that at the French and she showed that. People look at that, parents… I was coaching Naomi Osaka at the time and said ‘hey, look at that’. So for sure that breeds this fearlessness in these young players.
“I think this generation is less respectful against everything, everything is possible now. Not in a negative way. They want everything so much quicker and I think that’s tennis also, they want to be top players straightaway. They don’t want to learn for two years, ‘no I want to be now’ and I think that has a lot to do with it.”
Indeed there is a palpable impatience to Ostapenko, and it shows both on the court and off it.
A few weeks after she won at Roland Garros, she reached the quarter-finals at Wimbledon. By autumn, she won a second-career title, in Seoul, and made back-to-back semis in Wuhan and Beijing.
Starting this season as an established top-10 player and a Grand Slam champion, Ostapenko admits she was struggling with the heightened expectations of her, but that struggle didn’t last long, because by March, she had reached the final of Miami – one of the biggest events of the year outside of the majors.
If you take away the 2,000 points Ostapenko earned for her French Open triumph, she would be ranked No. 11 in the world right now.
“I think she’s not a one-trick pony at all and she’s here to stay at the top for a long time,” insists Taylor.
“I think the most important thing about that playing style is playing how you must, not how you feel. If you’re nervous, don’t play nervous. If a second serve return is sitting there, you attack it, because that is your biggest chance to win the point. But if you do a lot of forward thinking or predictable thinking, you may play it short down the middle hoping the girl misses.
“I think this is the biggest thing and that’s why she won the French Open because she was able to play how she must.
“Now she’s going to be more nervous going in, more expectation. There was no expectation on someone 50 in the world ever winning a Grand Slam, it’s very rarely done in our sport. But I think she’s dealt with it so far incredibly well.”
Ostapenko heads to the French capital with a couple of quarter-final appearances under her belt on clay, in Stuttgart and more recently in Rome, where she lost in a high-quality three-setter to Maria Sharapova.
The Latvian loves the clay, and has the footwork required to master the art of sliding on it. She had been taking ballroom dancing lessons for years, and she added boxing to her training regimen two months ago.
“At the beginning of the year, it was very tough for me to start the year because I was the favourite in almost all the matches. But now I got used to that,” admits Ostapenko.
“And after playing the final in Miami, I think I’m doing much better. And I’m still not thinking about that I have to defend a title. I’m just thinking to go there and have like two great weeks and just to enjoy the time there.”
Ostapenko has a fiery personality that erupts just as forcefully as he groundstrokes. Taylor, who joined the team last December, isn’t trying to extinguish that fire in his pupil, but instead, use it to her advantage.
“I’ve never coached anyone probably so emotional,” said Taylor.
“Ana Ivanovic had this incredible love of the game, was very emotional, but a different time of emotion.
“I’ve come to the conclusion that I have to give her more freedom but then temper that somehow in the right direction because I think this type of personality can sometimes work against you, and we’ve seen this in the past, but you never want to take someone’s personality away from them, because I think that’s probably their biggest asset.”
Ostapenko singles out her mentality as the one thing she feels has improved the most over the past 12 months. Taylor is trying to help her with her point construction to give her more ways to get to the right balls.
The Aussie concedes that joining a mother-daughter team is never an easy task but he has experience from his time working as a hitting partner for Martina Hingis, who was coached by her mother Melanie Molitor.
“It’s a very similar dynamic and the mum will always be the most influential person in her career, there’s no doubt, and I’m not trying to replace that. I’m trying to add,” he said.
“Sometimes it’s been difficult for sure and there’s a little bit of a language barrier. Aljona’s mum has been fastly improving her English so it’s been good. But the fact that they chose to bring someone else into this close-knit (team) shows they want to improve and open up.”
She’s only 20, but Ostapenko has been accustomed to being at the top in whatever age-group or level she was competing in. She was ranked No. 2 in the world as a junior and won the girls’ singles title at Wimbledon in 2014.
The biggest challenge for Taylor is probably convincing her to operate in a different way.
“She’s had so much success doing what she’s doing. She obviously wants to improve, that’s the first thing she told me on the phone. But someone who has had success at every level of tennis, biggest 14s tournament in the world, biggest 16s, junior Grand Slam, Grand Slam, it’s an incredible rise, and here’s someone coming along saying ‘hey we need to work on this’… ‘Why? I’m doing well’. Of course she is,” he says.
“But for longevity of the game and awareness, tactical awareness, there’s just so many more eyes on her. There’s a lot of good coaches out there and there’s so much information we have access to now, with SAP on board.
“I think I’m somewhat winning the battle and her mother is a fantastic help.”