For a majority of professional players, tennis is about suffering. Not that the concept of suffering is alien to the world of professional sports, but in tennis, the suffering extends far beyond the hours spent on court and at the gym.
It’s a sport that is financially depleting and those without sponsorship are forced to spend more than they earn as the pressure increases exponentially to perform well today, so they can afford to travel to their next tournament tomorrow.
They’re not only battling other players on court, but also for sponsorship deals off it.
Lower-ranked players trying to breakthrough can’t afford to travel with their coaches, have to plan their own calendars and book their own flights and hotels meaning it becomes a logistical nightmare especially for players who need to get entry visas to travel to most countries.
Like countless players fighting for that elusive breakthrough, Egypt’s Mohamed Safwat knows what he’s up against yet is still raring to go.
Currently on the verge of breaking the top-300 for the first time, the 22-year-old from Mansoura is trying to navigate the ITF circuit in post-revolution Egypt, where politics remain the No1 topic and the tumbling economy dictates that businessmen will not even dream of sponsoring an athlete.
Safwat just won two Futures titles back-to-back in the sea-side city of Sharm El Sheikh in southern Sinai, but that warranted almost zero coverage from the local media and he admits it stung a little.
“All the media is sticking solely to politics and they’re not covering sports,” Safwat told Sport360°. “I won two titles back-to-back, in Egypt nonetheless, and only two newspapers in the entire country mentioned it briefly. Our life cannot just be centred around the revolution. It should be okay to discuss other topics.
“After the revolution, the tournaments played in Egypt all disappeared but now the Egyptian Tennis Federation is working very hard and we have a full calendar of tournaments played all year in Sharm El Sheikh and not a single TV channel has mentioned it. And of course no coverage for Davis Cup.”
But the lack of media support is just one minor fact in the life of tennis players, amidst a general state of neglect from the Egyptian government.
Taking it one step further, the bureaucracy in the country is hindering the progress of promising talents like Safwat, by making them jump through hoops each time they wish to travel to a tournament.
Safwat explained to me how he was meant to play the $100k Challenger in Johannesburg after his two title wins in Sharm El Sheikh but because he made it far in the second week in Sinai, he needed to change the date of the travel permit (a document issued by the Egyptian military to allow young males to travel abroad) from April 25 to April 28.
That change required 10 days to be processed which meant Safwat had to miss Johannesburg – and a chance to break the top-300 – and it was also too late for him to get into the draw of the Futures event in Sharm El Sheikh instead; the same applied to the following week.
In his own words, Safwat explains the process of obtaining a travel permit: “During your university years, someone must guarantee your travel for you and ensure that you will come back to the country. So for athletes, the Ministry of Sport and the Federation of your sport are the ones who can get you the travel permit. If for any reason I am not on good terms with the Federation, I can kiss travel goodbye.
“First the Federation must hold a meeting and discuss your case and then they have to approve it. That approval then goes to the Olympic Committee, who authorise it. Then it goes to the Ministry of Sport where the Minister signs a decree before I take that approval to the military to get the travel permit.
“I truly believe that the Minister of Sport must intervene and try to facilitate this process for athletes. Sometimes the military won’t give you the travel permit even if you have the ministerial decree. If you’re a professional athlete, you deserve the support of your country. There has to be an exception. It’s not normal that my calendar got messed up just for a three-day difference.
“The permit is issued with a specific date and a specific destination and there is no wiggle room. This one paper controls your life basically. I missed a chance to break the top-300 because of it. The system is flawed and people in this country claim that they are supporting sport but it is purely all talk, with no action.
“They keep saying why don’t we have champion tennis players? Why are footballers doing well but not us? I doubt that a single pro footballer goes to get his travel permit himself. Their federation takes care of everything, while I handle all this stuff myself.”
Naturally all individual sports take a backseat to football in Egypt and it seems it has taken its toll on Safwat, who continued: “I’ve never been honoured by our Ministry of Sport. Our President (Mohamed Morsi) recently honoured our junior football team because they won the Under-20 African Cup of Nations.
“The Egyptian national tennis team has won the African Championships for the past four consecutive years; we’ve never received as much of a certificate to acknowledge our victories. So you can’t do all that to us and expect us to stay committed to the national team. They call us traitors if we don’t make time for the national team but it’s a vicious cycle.
“Individually I’m trying to find a solution for myself, but such incidents really force me to consider leaving the country again. I keep trying but no one wants to help. I feel that every day solutions keep getting narrower and narrower.”
Safwat has already tried living abroad and trained at the Bruguera Tennis Academy in Barcelona last year as well as the JC Ferrero Equelite Tennis Academy in Alicante. But he says neither were the right fit for him and he returned to Cairo, where he now trains with retired player Karim Maamoun.
While touring, Safwat has the company of Austrian coach and former world No181 Martin Spottl, whom he started working with right before he picked up his two titles last month. Safwat says his target for the season is to hopefully break the top-200 and play at the US Open.
He is sponsored by Wadi Degla, an Egyptian holding company that owns several sports clubs, but while he is grateful for their support, he admits it is not enough to push him much farther up the rankings. “Unfortunately the support they give me is not enough at this level,” Safwat told me at the Qatar Open early this season.
“If I’m playing on the Challenger circuit and hopefully the ATP circuit next, I need to have a coach travelling with me. I need to travel a lot more than I do when I’m just competing on the Futures circuit. I will need double what I’m getting right now to move up to that level. We are trying to find more sponsors and so is Wadi Degla, they’re trying to help me out with that.
“The more budget I have, the better I can do. The budget I have right now, I can maybe travel to tournaments for 10 weeks. But more than that I can’t. So the pressure is very high for me to perform in those 10 weeks. If I choose to travel with my coach, those 10 weeks become seven.
“But I have full support from the coaches, my family, my fiancée, they all help me a lot and support me mentally 100 per cent. From the financial perspective, of course it comes down to sponsorship.”
There is one positive thing that has helped Safwat this season – that is the return of tournaments to the Egyptian calendar. With a full Futures schedule in the country, he was able to collect some points without travelling, but it is evident he must make his mark on the Challenger tour in order to advance. But playing at home for a few weeks has without a doubt helped him financially.
“This year is a bit different because there is a chance that I might have a positive balance even though normally it would be that I end the year with a negative balance,” said Safwat, shedding some light on the financial state of someone of his ranking. “But this year there have been many Futures in Egypt and I haven’t been paying anything to play them, I am using that money saved to pay Martin (Spottl).
“The Challengers also provide hospitality. So I will probably break even at the end of this year, or finish it with a slight positive. But what has been happening all the past years is that I always spend more than I have been making.”
Safwat is currently in Egypt preparing for the Davis Cup, after which he will play three Futures in Sharm El Sheikh before heading to Europe for some Challengers with Spottl. He has taken many positives from his two recent title runs and is ready to move forward.
He says: “These two weeks I played great and beat some really tough players. My draws have been difficult but I only dropped two sets in the whole two weeks. I’ve managed to maintain a high level for a full two weeks, and I was good both mentally and physically. The problems I had with my travel schedule threw me off a bit but I am trying to overcome them.”
DID YOU KNOW THAT…
– Safwat stretched current world No56 Daniel Brands to three sets in the second round in the Qatar Open earlier this year.
– He is the highest ranked Egyptian player and third-highest ranked Arab behind Malek Jaziri and Lamine Ouahab.
– Safwat’s favourite player is Rafael Nadal. “I love his fighting spirit. He never stops. Regardless who he is playing, he plays against the ball and it doesn’t matter who is on the other side of the net,” says the Egyptian.
– Safwat’s parents and siblings all play tennis and that’s how he took up the sport.
– Safwat rang the new year with a 6-0, 6-0 win in his first ever ATP main draw match.
– He is creating a foundation in his name aimed to help Egyptian tennis players in rural areas and to promote the sport nation-wide.