Mohamed Safwat made history for Egypt on Sunday as he made his Grand Slam debut at Roland Garros.
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.”
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.