By Reem Abulleil
Tunisian Ons Jabeur unfortunately had to miss out on the opportunity to defend her Mutua Madrid Open title due to a calf injury but in her absence, Egyptian Mayar Sherif is proud to be representing the Arab and North African region at the Caja Magica this fortnight.
The highest-ranked Egyptian woman in tennis history, and the first from her country to clinch a WTA title, Sherif won her opening match on Wednesday, on her tournament main draw debut, when her opponent Camila Giorgi abruptly retired ahead of the start of the third set.
Nine months ago, Sherif hit a career-high ranking of 44 in the world, and later in the season, she triumphed on the clay courts of Parma to lift a maiden WTA trophy.
Sherif has long admired Jabeur, and on many occasions has spoken about how the Tunisian has inspired her and constantly motivates her to do better. The pair of them are now doing that for many others.
Around the grounds at the Caja Magica, Sherif bumped into Jordanian teenager Abdullah Shelbayh, who is competing in the ATP event in Madrid for the first time, courtesy of a main draw wildcard.
Shelbayh is the latest young talent to emerge from the Arab region and Sherif is certain we will see many more coming up from both the Middle East and Africa.
“It makes me so happy to see new faces from our region on tour,” the 26-year-old Sherif told mutuamadridopen.com in an interview.
“At some point there was just Ons. Then it was me and Ons. Now there is someone new and you never know maybe we see a fourth and a fifth come up soon. It’s really nice to see how it’s changing, how it’s become obvious that the players are starting to believe that they can make it.
“In the W100 I played recently in Oeiras, there was a young South African player (18-year-old Isabella Kruger) who is close to the top 300. It’s nice to see more African players or Arab players really going for it 100 percent.
“I feel like players now have the belief that they can make it and can see proof with their own eyes that it’s possible, and they’re thinking, ‘Why not us too?’. Hopefully this keeps going.”
After graduating from Pepperdine University in 2018, Sherif moved to Spain to train under the tutelage of her coach Justo Gonzalez in Elche.
The Cairo native is fluent in Spanish and feels a special kind of support when she competes on Spanish soil.
“It definitely feels like my second home,” says Sherif of Spain. “Justo’s family, they are my family. He and his kids are here, his father is coming as well. If I win my second round, my friends from the club where I train will come to Madrid. So it feels like my home and I feel the support.
Sherif’s 18-year-old sister Rawane has also recently moved to Spain and is studying in Murcia. She is with her this week in Madrid.
“I live in a very calm place, people are very chilled, the food is delicious, and I live 15 minutes from the beach,” says Sherif about her life in Elche. “I move around so easily, I love the tradition, the culture. When I go back there after tournaments, it really feels like home.”
Sherif’s rise has been relatively fast and she admits she is still finding her bearings when it comes to competing at the biggest events on tour. While she has excelled at many ITF W100 and WTA 125 tournaments – winning a total of five titles at that tier – she is searching for consistency at tour level.
“It’s still a new experience for me,” she said of competing at WTA 1000 events.
“I’m comfortable with my level, I know now where the level is; I’m not entering the court mentally not knowing what’s to come. Mentally I’m comfortable. But I still lack experience and I still lack some experience in the mental side of things. Going from one tournament to another, how to learn from the losses and all that.”
Like most successful athletes, Sherif is her own harshest critic and she concedes that this season has not gone the way she would have hoped so far.
Her 2023 highlights include a quarter-final appearance at the WTA tournament in Monterrey in March and a semi-final showing at a W100 in Oeiras last week. She admittedly was gunning for more.
“This year I didn’t handle things so well in terms of expectation,” she says.
“My ambition was higher than where my level was. I put high expectations for myself and when they didn’t come, there was a great deal of disappointment, there was this kind of mental disappointment.
“Now we are trying to go back to basics. I’m trying to find my match rhythm again and get the confidence back.
“I have nothing to fear, I know where my level is. Maybe I just need more time.”
Sherif, whose game is naturally more suited for the clay, feels she has made significant progress on hard courts, even though the results do not necessarily convey that.
“That negatively affected me. I’m still trying to get out of that disappointment now and I’m trying to think positively,” she added.
This week in Madrid could prove to be a turning point for Sherif, especially with so many loved ones in her corner. With Roland-Garros looming ahead, Sherif is doing her best to stay in the moment and wants to avoid the trap of looking too far ahead.
“I’m thinking of my next match in Madrid (against Anhelina Kalinina in round two). I’m trying to go day by day because putting high expectations and looking ahead to a specific tournament or ahead in the season in general didn’t really help me out so far,” she said.
“This is what happened this year. So I want to get back to basics and go day by day, match by match, improve every week and every day.”