Egyptians went to sleep with heavy hearts on Saturday night following reports that Mohamed Salah’s injury could potentially rule him out of the World Cup.
But on Sunday morning, they woke up to news that Mohamed Safwat got a lucky loser spot at Roland Garros to become the first Egyptian in 22 years to contest a Grand Slam main draw. He got to make his historic Major debut on Centre Court, against No. 4 seed Grigor Dimitrov.
Safwat, who lost in the qualifying third round to Guido Andreozzi and was drawn seventh in the lucky loser lot, needed seven players to pull out of the French Open in order to get a place in the main draw.
On Saturday evening, he found out he was next in line when Alexandr Dolgopolov became the sixth player to withdraw from Roland Garros.
Safwat had a hit on an outside court at 9:00am on Sunday, then went to sign in for a lucky loser spot at 10:00am, not knowing whether he would get the chance to actually play. A few minutes later, the tour manager told him that Viktor Troicki has pulled out with a lower back issue and that in under an hour, Safwat would be taking on Dimitrov on Court Philippe Chatrier at 11:00.
Dimitrov found out he was playing Safwat almost 30 minutes before the clash, from none other than Troicki himself.
The Bulgarian bumped into Troicki, who wished him luck and Dimitrov gave him a confused look.
“It’s not easy, I think, when those kind of things happen, you just need to be ready,” said Dimitrov, who defeated Safwat 6-1, 6-4, 7-6 (1) to reach the French Open second round.
“I just needed, like, five, 10 minutes to disconnect from what I had in mind to play and what I wanted to do and kind of look at the few videos of the way Safwat was playing. Because he already played two matches, that gives him a bit of an advantage, regardless.
“After that, I just had to go out and do the best that I can. I think it was a good start.”
Safwat, ranked 182 in the world, is the first Egyptian since Tamer El Sawy in 1996 to contest a Slam main draw. The 27-year-old from Mansoura understandably had a slow start in the match, as he got accustomed to Philippe Chatrier stadium – a court with huge dimensions that intimidates even the seasoned pros the first time they step on it.
“I’d never even seen the inside of that stadium before, let alone hit on it,” said Safwat.
“At the beginning, I mean, it was — I was trying to figure it out, what is — how the court. Is it fast or slow? For me, I felt it’s different than the courts outside.
“I didn’t know my right tension, so I was trying to switch racquets there and here. I was trying to figure out what I do.
“So basically I feel like I start to play and feel comfortable at the middle of the second set when I was 4-1. I started to feel my string. I change my racquet. I had a loose racquet. Luckily, I had that one and I started, like, to feel, like, yeah.
“And from that moment, I picked up the momentum, and it was actually fun at the end to play. That’s when I figured out what is happening and what I need. And it was really enjoyable.”
Indeed at 1-4 down in the second set, Safwat took two games in a row and had a break point to level for 4-all. But Dimitrov saved it and soon moved on to the third.
Safwat got bolder in his shots and the crowd got behind him, even chanting his name at times. He held from 0-40 down in game nine of the third, letting out a huge ‘come on’ to force Dimitrov to serve to stay alive in the set. The Egyptian eventually succumbed in the tiebreak, but walked away knowing he had made history for his country.
Safwat and Dimitrov embraced at the net and the Bulgarian later revealed that they knew each other from their junior days.
“We have known each other for so long. I told him, ‘It’s nice to see you’,” said Dimitrov of their exchange at the net.
“It’s nice to play someone you know for such a long time.
“I’m happy when I see players that I have shared courts, practice, matches from juniors. And now we are out here, battling on such a court. I think it’s great. So you never have to forget that.”
For Safwat, this was a dream come true. Growing up watching Roland Garros on TV, he admits he never imagined he’d get to play on centre court. He recalls watching and recording Gustavo Kuerten and Roger Federer matches from the French Open on TV.
He also fantasised about facing 11-time champion Rafael Nadal on this very court, and had he been drawn sixth in the lucky loser lot, he would have actually faced the Spaniard, since Dolgopolov was due to play Nadal but pulled out and was replaced by Simone Bolelli.
“It’s something big,” Safwat said about his Grand Slam debut.
“I always was dreaming to play on centre court with such a crowd. And I had thoughts I might get in here and play Nadal in the first round.
“But it was really, really a lot of things happened to me in the last few months, and this is one of the biggest thing. I never ever thought I would go in the (qualifying) final round and then have a chance to compete in a tournament, in the main draw, in a Grand Slam against a good player in the centre court in Philippe Chatrier.
“It’s something I always saw it on TV, but I never had the experience to see. So it was really, really enjoyable for me.”
Safwat acknowledges that this is an important “milestone” in his career, but is already looking ahead on what he needs to improve to relive such experiences time and time again.
“I need to stop on what happened this week and need to learn. And I need to look again on the match and see what can be improved, either mentally or physically or tennis or what I need to add on the game to compete,” he said.
“You know, just not to see that now I played on the center court; I got in the Grand Slam, lucky loser, and that’s it. You know, I don’t want to have it like this. I would like, you know, to look at it more, to start to see what I need to improve, to go up, because that’s always the goal and the dream to go up, not to be happy with what you get.
“Definitely I’m happy at this moment, but, like I said, it’s a milestone. I need to go forward.”
He is currently based in Austria, training there with ex-world No. 17 Gilbert Schaller and admits the system back home in Egypt, doesn’t really help cultivate talent.
“I feel like in Egypt we don’t know how to get there, or we don’t have the knowledge,” he said.
“We don’t have so many players who achieve. And the ones that achieve, I feel they’re not helping the tennis there. Besides now, our federation president Ismail El Shafei, he’s trying to do something.
“But I feel like we are just missing the knowledge. Because what I am experiencing now, the new changes I’ve made and the things I add to, on court and off court, that we understand the sport wrong, like, the philosophy of the sport or how to play or how to maintain the level.”
This is surreal. An Egyptian playing on Philippe Chatrier pic.twitter.com/hWwGm5mkZy
— Reem Abulleil (@ReemAbulleil) May 27, 2018
Safwat is just the fourth Egyptian to ever play in a Grand Slam, and he’s now hoping he won’t be the last.
Those who tuned into his match in Paris on Sunday can potentially get inspired by it, the same way Safwat watched Kuerten and decider to pursue a career in tennis.
Safwat was drawn seventh in the lucky loser lot and was next in line after Alexandr Dolgopolov became the sixth player to withdraw from the French Open on Saturday.
Viktor Troicki, who was due to face No. 4 seed Grigor Dimitrov in the opening match on Court Philippe Chatrier on Sunday, made a last-minute withdrawal citing a lower back issue, which meant that Safwat was the seventh lucky loser to make it into the main draw.
Safwat had lost his qualifying third round to Argentina’s Guido Andreozzi.
The 27-year-old from Mansoura is the first Egyptian to play a Slam main draw since Tamer El Sawy competed at the French and US Opens in 1996.
He is just the fourth Egyptian to ever play in a Grand Slam singles main draw, alongside El Sawy, Ahmed El Mehelmy (1985 US Open), and Ismail El Shafei, who contested 26 majors between 1968 and 1980.
Roland Garros has been a happy hunting ground for Arabs recently. Last year, Ons Jabeur became the first Arab woman to reach a Grand Slam third round in singles.
* READ MORE on Safwat’s Grand Slam debut and how he fared against Dimitrov in Paris.
Last year, an in-form David Goffin entered the French Open as one of the very few players who could potentially challenge the ever-dominant Rafael Nadal on his beloved clay.
Goffin, ranked No. 12 at the time, then suffered a freak accident in the third round, he tripped on the tarp placed at the end of the court behind the baseline while reaching for the ball. He fell, hurt his ankle, and his tournament was instantly over. It was a heartbreaking moment to witness, as Zeballos packed Goffin’s bag for him while the Belgian was taken off the court.
Goffin was forced to skip Wimbledon and it wasn’t until the US Open that he was able to win back-to-back matches again.
He found his form in the fall, winning consecutive trophies in Shenzhen and Tokyo, before defeating Nadal and Roger Federer in London en route to the title match of the ATP Finals. He deservedly finished 2017 ranked No. 7.
In a top-10 that has five players with a height of 198cm or taller, Goffin is 180cm and weighs 68kg. But the current world No. 9 is proving time and time again that size is not everything in tennis, as he continues to threaten the field with his speed, anticipation and his ability to take the ball early.
Despite another accident that saw him get hit by the ball in the eye in February, Goffin starts his French Open campaign today – against Dutchman Robin Haase – with many eyes on him as a danger man in the bottom half of the draw.
I sat down with the 27-year-old in Rome, to discuss what the French Open means to him, his unlucky accidents on the court, and lots more.
— David Goffin (@David__Goffin) May 26, 2018
You are part of the generation that kind of got stuck between the ‘Big Four’ and the young, up-and-coming, Next Gen guys. That must be a tough equation…
Yes but I have the age I have. Of course I’m 27, like you said I’m a little bit between both generations, but I’m still there. It’s good also to have the ‘Big Four’ because they pulled the level of tennis really high so you have to be really strong to follow them. And I think what they bring to tennis is amazing and now the level is so high on the ATP tour and you have to follow them but I’m really impressed also with the young guns coming on the tour, with Sascha Zverev, who won Madrid, and so many good ones with (Borna) Coric, (Karen) Khachanov, (Andrey) Rublev and so many.
I’m a little bit in between and I have to stay strong to be part of the top-10. I’ll try to stay there, to improve, because sometimes you have to continue to improve just to stay where you are. If you don’t improve your game I think you fall in the rankings.
At first it seemed like clay is your favourite surface but you’ve done incredibly well on hard courts, even indoors end of last year. How has your game evolved over the different surfaces throughout the years?
I think when I was young it was maybe clay courts because in Belgium we played on clay, so it’s quite natural to move and slide on clay for me. But after that, when I was younger, I didn’t have a lot of power, so I was struggling a little bit on clay so it was easier to make winners on hard courts for me, with my game, I was moving well, I like to take the ball early, it was easier on hard courts.
Then growing up I was more powerful so I had more power so on clay it was tough to make a winner against me and it was easier for me to find the good pace and play a bit heavier, so that’s why maybe now I can play on every surface and I’m still comfortable on hard courts, especially outdoor, and I’m feeling great on every surface.
With the accident you had at Roland Garros last year, do you feel you have unfinished business there, especially with how well you were playing in the build-up?
I think so, I think in that part of the year last year I played probably my best tennis. Also at the end of the year with the Masters and the Davis Cup, I was playing my best tennis so far. But on clay I was playing my best tennis last year, and I was at the French Open with a lot of confidence, I was in the third round against Zeballos and happened what happened. It’s okay, it was an accident and now I’m looking forward to going back in Paris to play hopefully another good tournament with some good level.
Was it mentally tough to get over that incident?
When you have an injury, the first moment and the first week when you’re injured it’s kind of – you’re happy because you’re a little bit at home and you have some free time with you family to rest a little bit, because I was a bit tired when I had my injury at the French but then after two weeks all of a sudden you want to come back but you cannot because it’s too early. You start to miss tennis a lot. And as soon as you come back on the court you want to come back as soon as you can but the level is not there, sometimes you’re still feeling your ankle but it’s not 100 per cent, so you have to be patient, and that’s the most difficult thing for the players with injuries, it’s to be patient. And also when you’re 100 per cent, your level isn’t there yet. The key is to be patient.
Does the French Open hold a special place in your heart with it being so close to home?
Yes, because it’s really close to the Belgian border so the Belgian fans always come to Paris, so there’s a lot of fans since I started to play there, since the first time, I always played on a big court – probably because of the fans, because the organisation they know they had a lot of Belgian fans. So I always played on the big courts, so it was always a great atmosphere, always great conditions for me, it’s like playing at home, same place, same balls, I always love to play at the French Open and I have some great memories from there and hopefully some more coming.
You made the fourth round as a lucky loser on your Roland Garros debut in 2012 and you ended up losing a great four-setter to Federer. What’s the biggest difference between that 21-year-old Goffin and the person you are today?
The first time I played Roger I didn’t know what I was doing. Now I’m more mature, more experienced on the tour, that’s the difference. I’m another player, I improved a lot, I manage the match much better than in the past. I’m more calm also on the court.
Tennis is obviously getting taller and taller. The top-10 has five players over 198cm. Is it getting tougher competing against all these big guys?
I don’t know. I think there is still some opportunity for small guys to play some good tennis. There were always some great players, for example (Sebastien) Grosjean, (Arnaud) Clement, Rochus brothers, now you have (Diego) Schwartzman, so there is still some place for small ones and I think for example, for the big guys, for John Isner, or Marin Cilic, I think they don’t like to play against small guys because they don’t miss, they can return, they have to run a lot, so I think we still have some opportunity to go to the top.
Looking back at your ATP Finals tournament last year, do you see it as a magic week or do you feel that kind of level is very attainable for you on a consistent basis?
Both. I think it was not a week where I closed my eyes and I put everything on the line. The end of the year was consistent, I was playing well, I was really calm, so it was a great week I think that I can repeat.
But it was a bit tricky because at the end I had Davis Cup after and I wasted a lot of energy at the end of the year and it was tough to come back four weeks later at the Australian Open. I needed some time to get back to my best level and to practice a bit and be ready for the next season. That’s why I came back and started to play well in indoor tournaments in France and in Rotterdam but I got hit by a ball in my eye and I had to fight again to come back.
Do you feel like you’re an unlucky guy?
No, I don’t think so. It was just another accident but it’s okay. I try to stay positive and try to come back and play my best tennis.
There is an element of on-court intimidation in tennis, some players put their game face on. You seem like a very nice guy both on and off the court, do you ever try to look meaner when you’re in a match?
I try to intimidate on the court with my game, with the pressure I can put with my game, how I’m running on the court and not with the body or the face, or the way I’m looking.
So you think those other ways to intimate aren’t really part of the game?
It is, but I don’t behave like that.