Growing up in Egypt as a tennis player is not easy. Governments, in some African countries, do not support athletes or sports in general. However, I am lucky and thankful for having a family that has been here for me, and gave me all the support I needed to be where I am right now.
My name is Sherif Abohabaga; I am from Cairo, Egypt. I was born on July 6th, 1994. As most of you guys know, Cairo is the capital of Egypt. I grew up in a family that loves sports. It is funny because most of my family members did not play sports, but they loved watching it. My dad is a big tennis fan who loved to watch Borg, Steffi Graf, Sampras, and many other professional tennis players. My mother did not play any sports, and was not interested in most of the sports that my dad used to watch. Soccer is the most popular sport back home; it is so special for my family. My dad used to tell me that when my Egyptian soccer team plays, it means that the whole family has to be together to watch and cheer for the team. I think that is why my mother only liked soccer.
The Early Years
At the age of 4, my dad introduced me to tennis. He took me to Al-Ahly sporting club which is the tennis club I played for my entire life, aside from one year. My parents told me that when I went to the tennis court for the first time, I was the only kid who did not want to leave my parents, and was crying the whole time. My dad bought me my first tennis racket; it was a Head racquet, and this was the only time I have ever played with any racquet other than Wilson. In Egypt, the weekends are Fridays and Saturdays. From Sunday to Wednesday, it was more about instruction, and Thursday was the points play day. Even when most of the people there did not know how to play, coaches were trying to let us play fun games. I hated Thursdays. I did not want to lose so I ended up crying, and staying with my mother. Most coaches used to tell my parents that I am not a competitive player, and I will never be good at this game. My parents did not believe it, and they kept pushing me and helping me as hard as they could. I kept playing tennis, and I started taking private lessons at the age of 5. I took lessons twice a week, with clinics 3 times a week. I started to like the game more, and my parents used to take me to watch tournaments. My dad used to say, “one day you will be holding that trophy, and you will take it home with you.”
The Beginning of Competitive Play
At the age of 7, my coach told my dad that there will be a tournament for ages 6, 7 and 8 and that I should play. My dad said it would be fun, and I should try. On the tournament day, as soon as I went to the tennis club and saw how busy it was, I started crying and I wanted to leave. As soon as they called my name and my opponent’s that we have to go to the court, I started to cry like crazy, and I did not want to leave my mom’s side. After a 20 minute long conversation, I decided to go to the court, and I beat the guy 6-0. We started the tournament from the round of 16. I ended up winning the tournament and I lost only one game. I believe it was an amazing feeling, and my parents used to tell me how happy I was.
At the age of 7, my parents decided to add 3 more sports to my life; soccer, swimming and karate. I liked soccer a lot and I played for two years, but sadly the coaches said I did not have the talent, but I could play for fun. Swimming was only about learning how to swim so when I go on a vacation or to the pool with family or friends, I can join them. Karate was about self-defense. I stopped playing soccer at the age of 10. I did swimming until the age of 9 then stopped and decided to do swimming for another year when I was 11. I did karate for 11 years and I had the brown belt. I remember at some point when I was playing 4 sports at the same time, I used to go to school at 7:40 am until 2:40. My parents would pick me up and I would have to change my clothes and eat in 20 minutes because my tennis practice started at 3 pm and went for 2 hours. Then at 5:30, I had karate for 2 hours and then ended my day with swimming from 8 to 9:30. I would go home to finish my homework, sleep and repeat. I did not like karate that much, it was a very stressful sport for me and the coaches were not fun, but my dad always said we have to be good at whatever we are going to play. I did not see it as pressure as most people think as much as I see it a responsibility. I did not understand his point until I grew up because when I was young I did not like competition. I remember my mom used to let me watch Chinese and Japanese DVDs to learn how to do karate, and the first exam we had at the club to switch from the white belt to the yellow, I failed. However, she did not want to tell me, so she talked to the coach and she let me have the yellow as everybody else. When everyone was about to get the brown belt, which is the one before the black, she told me that I failed the first-ever test. Back to tennis, it is the sport that changed my life; I got the chance to travel to many countries and have a lot of friends.
At the age of 11, my parents took me to the first tennis camp that my club had. It was tennis and fitness. We also had a chance to stay at the club all day, but I always preferred to stay at home with my family. I was playing a lot of tournaments between the ages 10 and 12 because my parents knew that as soon as you reach 11 and you are doing well, or you are ranked from the top 5 players in the nation, you can join the Egyptian national team.
At the age of 11, I was one of the youngest players to be ranked number 1 under 12 years old. Players who were one year older than me were shocked by my performance. The time came and coaches were about to decide who were the players who would join the Egyptian national team to play the North African championship. Parents complained about me traveling with two other guys who were a year older than me. They said that I still had another year to play, and they deserve the chance to play. The head coach stepped up and said I am the youngest but I deserve a chance because I was ranked number 1 in the country. We traveled to Algeria to play my first North African championship tournament, and I made it to the final in singles and doubles. The year after when I traveled to play with the players who were my age. We went to Morocco, and I won the tournament singles and doubles.
At the age of 12, I started to have my private tennis coach; we used to practice 5 times a week. Moreover, that year the head coach at the tennis club where I practice decided to let me play with the team in the Egyptian tennis league which consists of 2 singles and 1 doubles. I played number 1 singles and I played doubles too. In the summer of 2005, the Asian tennis federation sent an email to the Egyptian federation and said that there would be a big event for top-ranked 3 players in each country. They said there will be a lot of players from different countries worldwide. 1 month later, the Egyptian federation asked for my passport and two other players who played in a different club; they were the number 2 and 3 ranked players. This was my first-ever time that I traveled to play in a tournament that was outside of Egypt. I traveled with my father. The tournament was on the same courts where Qatar open is. The big stadium and the atmosphere was amazing. The coaches had a meeting with the tournament directors. The draw was out and we got to know against whom we would play and what time. The tournament was singles and teams. Busses would come every 30 minutes to pick the players up from the hotel and take them to courts. The number 1 seed was a Tunisian player, and the number 2 seed was an Indian. I played against the number 2 seed in the semi-finals and that was the hardest match of the tournament. I ended up winning 13-11 in a 10 point tiebreaker. Then in the final, I beat the Tunisian guy. While playing with the Egyptian national team, we ended up beating the Syrian team in the semi-finals then in the final we were playing against the host team, and I remember the stadium was full of people, but we ended up winning, and we won the trophy. The year ended, and I was ranked number 1 in Egypt.
I started to prepare myself to play under 14; I added a fitness coach and worked more on my physical fitness. My parents were my biggest and number 1 supporters; my dad used to come to every single match and practice. I ended my first year under 14 as number 3, but I did not qualify for the biggest event which is the African championship. The year after, I started as the number 1 player because the people who were older started to play under 16. I won a couple of Egyptian tournaments, and I qualified for the African championship, and the Arab championship under 14. In 2008, I participated in he African championship; it was in Botswana. I got 3rd place in singles and qualified for one Juniors World Cup, which is one of the biggest events I ever played in my life. The World Cup consists of 16 teams and they divide them into 4 groups, and each group has 4 teams. In our group, we played against Great Britain, Brazil, and India. And after the group stages, we played against Venezuela and South Africa. We finished as the number 13th in the world. It was one of the best experiences I have ever had in my life; I got to play against some players and became friends with others. I made friends whom I see on TV nowadays like Laura Robson and some others.
After playing that big event, the African federation decided to make a tournament in Morocco between the best 8 players in Africa but this tournament was based on votes. African coaches choose who the best players are, and luckily I was one of those. I won the tournament in doubles and got 4th place in singles. I qualified to travel to Asia and play against the top 12 player in Asia. I ended the year winning a national tournament with dropping only a set.
When I was 15, my coach started to introduce me to the ITF tournament. I had a Wilson sponsor; I used to get 5 rackets, two tennis bags, and a Wilson suitcase. I also got a 30% sponsor from Adidas.
It was hard to balance between school, practice, and travel, but hard work always pays off. I started to schedule the tournament that I will be playing through the year, the days of practices and the days off to balance things up. I had to give my coach my school schedule. My parents started scheduling my time to compete, rest and take care of my school work. The first year under 16 wasn’t very successful. I did not reach my expectations. I ended the year being number 3 under 16 and I was ranked #540 in the world. The year after was a turning point; I started with three international doubles event wins, and made it to the final once in 3 weeks. I qualified for the Arab championship held in Egypt. I won the doubles tournament and made it to the final in singles. I also won the Arab championship with the Egyptian national team. I played around 11 national tournaments and I won 10 out of 11.
In the last two years of playing junior tennis, I got to travel to different countries and got to play against some tough and famous players, like Borna Coric who is ranked as the top 40 in the world. I had a couple of wins against players in the top 300 in the world. I was the number 1 player in Egypt in two consecutive years under 18 and I qualified to play the Arab championship twice two years in a row. I made it to the finals twice, and won it once with the Egyptian national team. I ended my junior career ranked #268 worldwide.
After High School
I graduated high school in 2012; I went to an American school in Grade 10, 11 and 12. I was not planning at that point on moving to a different country, but it was more flexible to travel and play tennis since I was studying in an American school. In my last two years under 18, I was competing in some men events. When I was ranked number 1 under 18 in my last year, I was the number 2 ranked player in Egypt in men. After finishing high school, I wanted to be a pilot. I tried to do it for half a year but it was too expensive.
The German League
February, 2013, I got a phone call from my head coach asking me if I want to play tennis in Germany on May 1st. I talked with my parents and we agreed and my coach also said that it will be a great experience. I started to get ready to travel and get my visa and put all the hard work in as I always do. The time had arrived and I was going to Germany to play for Tc Neuwied in Germany. As soon as I arrived, the director of the club was waiting for me and took me to the tennis club and showed me my room. They had a visitor room at the club for all foreign players who came to play for the club. The next day I got to meet the head coach and some of the players at the club. I was very welcomed and all the people were so excited to see me playing.
In the German league, they play team matches every Sunday and I was there to play 6 matches for the club. I played number 1 singles and doubles for my German team. I won all my matches and we moved to the other league. I got the opportunity to play in the German league for three years in a row and got to compete against top-ranked players. I have a win against the number 39 ranked player in Germany and a top 300 player in the world.
In 2014, I went to college in Egypt and I started to study business. Playing professional tennis was one of my dreams but it is very expensive to go professional if you do not have a sponsor. Also, school is my family’s first priority. I started summer 2014 talking to my friends about coming to the United States because this is the only place in the world where you can study and compete at the same time, and get a scholarship.
One of my best friends in Egypt who played tennis in the United States started to help me follow my dream and come to the United States. It was not an easy process, but life is not easy and we all have to sacrifice things. I contacted a couple of different coaches in Division II because I was not eligible to play Division I due to NCAA rules of transferring twice, and I would have to have a redshirt.
The Journey to Southwest Baptist University
I got in contact with Coach John Bryant- the head coach at Southwest Baptist University- and we went through a lot of things, such as transferring procedures, tennis and some other different topics regarding the tennis team and scholarships. On January 19th, 2015, I came to the United States. I started as a freshman in tennis, but a sophomore in school. I was lucky that Southwest Baptist University transferred all my classes and I had enough credits to start as a sophomore.
Studying in the United States was completely different from studying in Egypt. Back home the lectures go around 2 and a half hours, and you can decide which days you want to go to your college and which days you want to take off. At SBU things were different. In your first year, your advisor chooses your classes. In your sophomore, junior, and senior year you can discuss your schedule with your advisor, but no matter what you have to go to school 5 days a week especially if you are taking 12 to 18 credits each semester. At SBU, lectures last for 50 minutes on Monday, Wednesday and Friday but Tuesday and Thursday the lectures last for 1 hour and 15 minutes. I liked the American way more, because you do not get bored; you are focused and able to understand what the teacher wants to say, plus you can always ask for office hours.
Life as a Student Athlete
Being a student-athlete is one of the hardest yet the best things I have ever done and experienced in my life. I used to wake up at 6 am to do conditioning and then go shower, eat breakfast then go to class at 8 am. After that I used to go to tennis practice that starts and 4 pm until 6 pm, then go shower, have dinner and then finish all the assignments or study for an exam. It is not as easy as people think. We used to sit in the van for hours and hours to go play a match in a different state. It is fun, but also stressful when you think about all the things that need to get done for school.
During my freshman year, I played number 1 in doubles and 2 in singles. I came in January and it was the spring season. I got to experience my first snow season ever. It was cold the majority of the time, and the snow made it even harder for me. I remember the first time I walked on the slippery snow, I fell a couple of times, and I didn’t know how to walk on it, but it was a fun experience. The season starts in February, but since the weather is not the best and we did not get to play a lot of tennis because SBU does not have indoors, so most of the time we were just playing at the racketball and doing fitness.
I still remember my first match at SBU; we went to play against Wichita Baptist and it was an away game. I was so stressed, but luckily I had Omar- one of my very close friends- who helped me to come to Southwest Baptist University. At that time, he was the assistant coach at SBU; he helped me get through the semester with the rest of my teammates and coach Bryant. I finished my spring season with 17 wins and 1 loss. I received the freshman player of year award.
The fall season is a short season for the tennis team; it is more individual. You play a lot of matches, but it goes by fast. In the spring season, if the season goes well, the team will go altogether to nationals, but in the fall it is an individual season. The team travels to play tournaments that coaches plan against different schools to get ready for the biggest event of the year which is the Regional tournament. Each region has around 8 to 12 teams, and each team has between 6 to 12 players, but each school can allow only the top 4 to 6 players to play at that tournament. In the fall, you can play 12 matches at the regionals which include 4 matches each day for three days between singles and doubles. I fell short at regionals in my freshman year and lost in the semifinal, but I had a good run as a freshman and it was not a bad year.
Spring 2016 was a better season for the team and myself. I played on the number 1 singles and doubles spots. We made it to the final conference, but we did not qualify for nationals. I had 19 wins and 2 loses and I received the player of the year award; I was ranked number 1 in singles and 2 in doubles in my region. Fall 2016 was one of the best seasons I have played. I had a big win against the number 2 ranked player of Oklahoma State in a tournament in Texas. After that, I won regionals in singles and made it to the final in doubles; I played 12 matches in three days. The week after I went to play nationals in Arizona and I got 5th place.
Spring 2017 was also a great season for the team. We won the conference, regionals, and made it to the final four at nationals. I just remember at nationals in the quarterfinals we were playing against Ferris State, and we ended up winning the deciding match 7-6 in the third set; this year the national tournament was in Orlando, Florida. I finished as the number 5 ranked player in the nation. I received the player of the year award for the second time in a row. I finished this year with 18 wins and 2 losses. Fall 2017, I played singles at regionals and made it to the finals dropping only 6 games. I got a hamstring injury at 4-1 in the first set, and it was hard to push through. It was my last regional match, and I lost 4-6, 6-7.
I graduated in fall 2017 with my undergrad in business management, but I started my masters in athletic administration in that fall, too. I got one more spring to play which was my senior year. My Master’s degree was a lot of paperwork and presentations, but I enjoyed it a lot and I had an amazing senior year. I ended up undefeated, ranked number 3 in the nation, won regular season for the second consecutive year, won conference as well as regionals and made it to nationals in Arizona.
Followed by this amazing season, I got a big chance to be a part of World Team Tennis and be the first substitute for the Springfield Lasers. The team had a lot of great players like Daniel Nestor -former number 1 player in the world- Jack Sock, and Miomir Kecmanovic. I was a member of the team in 2018 and 2019 and the team won the king trophy in both years for the first time. I was the hitting partner for all players and got to travel with the team to the final of 2019, and it was one of the biggest experiences in my life. I had a great opportunity to meet and see great players like Venus Williams, Mike and Bob Bryan, and many others.
College tennis is something that I miss a lot. There were a lot of ups and downs throughout my time at SBU, but I have learned a lot of things from everyone I met. I enjoyed every moment being on and off the tennis court. I miss the late-night studies before exams, and the time when we are 9 in one van, but we still make it fun. It is something that I miss a lot and I wish I could go back with the time and get to play again for SBU and with my teammates.
One thing I have learned and I hope all players, parents or anyone who is reading this learn, is to do the hard work. Put everything you can, exert all the effort and do not let any day pass without giving 100% in everything you do in life. Life is good, let’s enjoy it and have fun. Go to the tennis court and have fun, but also try your best because losing hurts. Life is a lesson, and we all learn from it. If you lose, do not ever give up. Just go back on track and give all you can and make sure if you do not leave the court tired, like really tired then you did not give your 100%.
Thank you to the great support system I have
I have to thank my parents because without them, I would not have achieved anything, or be where I am now in life. They sacrificed a lot for me and the word thank you is really not enough for them. It is hard also to be away from home and be in a completely different country, but it is worth it. I have learned how to be able to be in charge and take care of myself. I also have to thank my sister who is my best friend, and the one person who always supports me in everything I do. I cannot forget about my teammates who were with me on and off the court. We had such an amazing time in the United States. I am also thankful for the Egyptian coaches who taught me how to hold a tennis racket and also the coaches whom I have practiced with and helped me achieve all my goals. Thanks to coach Bryant who was not only our coach, but our dad at SBU. He helped us become better people before being better players. He spent a lot of time with me on and off court; he used to give me speeches before we go to the court.
I am very thankful for everything that has happened and is happening to me right now. I am blessed to have a lot of people who want just the best for me, just like my parents, my sister and my amazing and wonderful girlfriend who has been helping me in everything in life.
Last but not least, I am very happy to be a Wembley member and I am so glad that I am a part of this amazing family. It is such a wonderful atmosphere and the lovely people there always make me feel like I am home.
It is my home right now.
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