Mayar Sherif says people told her to her face that it is “impossible to be a good tennis player from Egypt”.
The world number 55, who recently reached the quarter-finals of the Madrid Open, has also revealed that her tennis “obsession” – something that runs in her family – drives her on to prove the doubters wrong.
“I use that negative energy, it gives me a motivation,” she told BBC Sport.
“I’m going to prove you wrong, I’m going to show you that I can.”
The 27-year-old, who was born in Cairo, made history in 2020 when she became the first Egyptian woman to reach the first round of a Grand Slam, winning the first set of her debut match at the French Open before ultimately losing to number two seed Karolina Pliskova of the Czech Republic.
Her performance even caught the eye of Egypt and Liverpool forward Mohamed Salah, who praised her on Twitter.
Three years later, Sherif is gearing up for another first round match at Roland Garros, this time against American Madison Brengle.
“I have loved the French (Open) since I was young,” she said.
“This is the tournament where it just (first) caught my eye.”
A family ‘obsession’
Sherif’s career trajectory has seen slow but steady improvement.
In 2021, she became the first Egyptian woman to win a match at a Grand Slam, beating France’s Chloe Paquet at the Australian Open, and also entered the world’s top 100 for the first time.
A year later she won her first match at the French Open before defeating Greece’s Maria Sakkari to win a first WTA Tour title at the Emilia-Romagna Open in Italy – all impressive achievements for someone from humble beginnings in Africa.
“We didn’t have much to work with (growing up). We didn’t have money, we didn’t have any financial support.”
What she did have was the committed backing of her tennis-mad family.
“My parents just love tennis. They made us watch tennis since we were really young.
“My older sister started when she was five – and that’s how I started, with her as well.
“But yeah, my parents are pretty much obsessed.”
That older sister, Rana Sherif Ahmed, is also now a professional player, so it is hardly surprising that the obsession was passed on to Sherif, who left home at 15 to train in Spain.
“It was very difficult back then, obviously I was a child. I didn’t know much,” she admitted.
“I was crazy and obsessed about being a professional tennis player.
“That helped me mature much faster than people my age. It shaped the way I practiced, the way I worked and the way I wanted to be on the court.
“(There are) still things that I learned coming to Spain as a 15-year-old. I still have it today.”
But the move to Europe also had its downsides because the teenage Sherif was only able to see her family a couple of times a year.
“It’s a huge sacrifice, but I chose to do it for the obsession. You want to get better and you want to win more matches.
“It was a chance to get good practice, to work with professionals because, in Egypt, it was very hard to get that.
“We don’t have a system. So we don’t have good fitness coaches, good tennis coaches, good physios.”
The Egyptian went on to attend Pepperdine University in Malibu, California, emerging with a Bachelor of Science degree in Sports Medicine.
“(At Pepperdine) it’s a very, very diverse community that shaped my personality. It improved me, improved who I am as a tennis player and I took that transition to the tour.
“It was a good experience for me to see college life because once you start on the tour you’re stuck there. You don’t really get to see the other experiences in the world when we’re travelling all the time.”
Career highs and Jabeur’s influence
Sherif recently achieved a career-high ranking of 43 when she defeated Caroline Garcia of France and Belgium’s Elise Mertens, 5th and 24th seeds respectively, on her way to the quarter-finals of the Madrid Open, another first for an Egyptian woman, underlining her improvement on clay.
A positive showing on the same surface at the French Open, which begins on Sunday, could see her move even higher, possibly into the world top 20.
Sherif is hoping that will inspire more young Egyptians to play her sport, something she claims is already happening.
“People are seeing tennis in Egypt much better than before. That’s a huge opportunity that we would have, with a little bit of financial support, for the next five to 10 years.
“This can give a push for many different players to be at least within the top 300.”
When it comes to other African players in Paris, Tunisia’s Ons Jabeur, the seventh seed, will face Lucia Bronzetti of Italy.
Sherif is a long-time friend of the current world number seven, who previously reached number two in the standings – the highest ranking for an African and Arab player in women’s singles history.
“We have respect for each other,” she revealed.
“She’s very helpful for me. I’ve known her from such a young age so we’re good friends.”
With an improving record and friendships with Grand Slam finalists, it is clear that Sherif’s obsession has carried her a long way.
Not bad for someone who was told her tennis dream was impossible.