Egyptian tennis legend Ismail El Shafei belongs to a very small group of only four players who have managed to beat the great Bjorn Borg at Wimbledon.
The 64-year-old from Cairo, who won Wimbledon as a junior in 1964, took out Borg in straight sets in the third round en route to the quarter-finals in 1974, only weeks after the Swede had won Roland Garros.
It was a couple of years before Borg began his five-year monopoly at the All England Club and El Shafei recalls the “Ice Man” had not mastered the grass surface at the time they first faced off.
“I remember it was on Court 1 – that court was destroyed after that and rebuilt,” El Shafei told Sport360 of his 6-2, 6-3, 6-1 drubbing of Borg.
“But it was one of the fastest courts at Wimbledon, so it suited my game more. He had just won Rome and Roland Garros but Borg at the time was not really adapted to that fast surface and I beat him in the second round and I made it to the quarter-finals that year.”
El Shafei was a constant fixture in the world’s top-flight tennis between ’74 and ’76 and no other Arab has managed to match his achievements at Wimbledon.
The big-serving lefty has memories playing against some of the game’s greatest legends including Jimmy Connors, John McEnroe and Arthur Ashe and he says his first round Wimbledon defeat to an 18-year-old McEnroe in 1977 really stung at the time.
El Shafei says: “McEnroe came through qualification and I remember being very upset that I had lost to a qualifier in my first round.
“But he ended up making a surprise run to the semis that year and then lost to Connors, so that made me feel a bit better that he went far in the tournament.”
El Shafei, who played his last professional match in 1982, remains a close follower of the sport and is the current chairman of the ITF’s Coaches Commission.
Having faced Borg three times in his career, he weighed in on the Rafael Nadal vs Borg debate on who is the best clay-court player of all time.
He says: “I think it’s very difficult to say because they belong to different generations. The main difference is the racquet – Borg played with a wooden racquet while Nadal plays with a graphite one and that makes a huge difference.
“Whether Nadal can play the tennis he plays now with a wooden racquet… I don’t think so. I would pick Borg – I think he was playing against a different atmosphere, more difficult conditions all around.”
El Shafei flew to Wimbledon on Thursday to attend the final rounds of the Championships, which he continues to follow religiously. He does however miss the sublime serve-and-volley style that was predominant in his era.
“Wimbledon is definitely (losing its allure because of this),” he says. “They now play with faster balls on the slow surfaces, and slower balls on the fast surfaces.
“If you look at 90 per cent of the matches, they’re all baseline matches. The efficiency of the return is also a big factor because the racquet is helping the players return better.”
As a former president of the Egyptian Tennis Federation, El Shafei realises the scarcity of Arab players in the ATP rankings and believes it all comes down to having the right system established in each country.
He says: “The breakthrough is to have the whole structure – you need to have the small tournaments for the standard of your players. From ITF junior tournaments to Futures to Challengers to big tournaments. That structure you don’t have it.
“In Dubai you have the big tournaments, that won’t help raise the quality of play locally, only awareness. The smaller tournaments are the ones that raise the quality locally.”