CAIRO: Charismatic tennis player Mahmoud Hamed El-Sayed is more than just an exceptional athlete who has been climbing up the national tennis rankings for the past decade though local and international competitions.
As a senior at the University of South Florida (USF), he was recently given the Big East Scholar-Athlete Sport Excellence Award for his excellence in both sports and academia.
The recognition is extremely rewarding and motivating for El-Sayed, “It gives you something back, I feel all that what I have done was worth it, he told Daily News Egypt.
Born on August 9, 1986, El-Sayed , 22, picked up a tennis racket for the first time when he was five. “My grandfather got me hooked on tennis; he used to play with me using a balloon and a plastic racket and then took me to the club to play tennis, he explains.
El-Sayed started having professional training when he was nine, the same year he participated in his first tournament. Being the down-to-earth man that he is, he abstains from calling tennis a profession. “I only used to practice after school six times a week, he recalls.
He won his first championship when he was under 12 years old at the Heliopolis Sporting Club’s National Tournament. “It was my club, everyone was watching…it was simply amazing, he remembers with nostalgia.
The victory catapulted him into the Egyptian national rankings, boosting his confidence and helping him focus on building a professional tennis career.
“I used to watch international tennis players and I think to myself, ‘I want to play like them,’ he said.
The highlight of his young career was when he turned 18, he says, and moved from junior championships to compete with the men’s team. His first was Al Ahly National Championship, a major local tournament, where he came in first place after beating number one and three in the Egyptian rankings.
El-Sayed had an extensive training schedule which was particularly challenging during schools days at the Deutsche Evangelische Oberschule Kairo (DEO, aka German School).
“[It was] difficult and needed time management, I used to come back from school, study then go for my daily practice then go back home straight to bed, he said. “Social life was sacrificed, he added.
But it was when he entered the American University in Cairo in fall 2004 that his busy schedule posed a particular challenge.
“AUC didn’t help me out at all in playing professional tennis and studying at the same time. For example, if I had to miss class for a game, they would agree but told me that I could only do it three times throughout the semester.
Training sessions and classes always clashed, I was doing my best but the organization was not helpful, he said.
Although he maintained excellent grades along with a rising tennis career, El-Sayed wanted more and after five semesters at AUC, he decided to move to the United States after being granted a scholarship at USF where he is currently studying marketing.
“Over there it’s much better in terms of organization and they appreciate sports much more. As an athlete I can be excused from attending class when I have a match and they coordinate my class schedule with my training schedule, he says.
The decision to take on a tennis scholarship and play exclusively for his university seemed sound for El-Sayed, but some athletes refuse it as they are only allowed to play at international tournaments if they don’t clash with university tournaments.
“I wanted a degree and at USF I have an opportunity to get a degree along with playing tennis, in addition the level of college sports in America is very high so my tennis is also improving, he said.
At USF he says the finest match he ever played was at the Big East Championships last season with USF. “We were playing against Louisville in the semi-finals. We were under a lot of pressure because I was the last one to play and my match was to decide whether the team would go on to the finals or not and I won, he says.
Even though he hasn’t been playing locally for the past two years, El-Sayed managed to make the Egyptian Davis Cup team which includes the top four players in the country.
The Davis Cup is the largest annual international team competition in men’s tennis in which the national teams from every country compete.
Besides being a local and international tennis rising star, El-Sayed also manages to keep an excellent academic record at USF with a GPA of 3.89 which earned him the recent excellence award, given to one student-athlete in each Big East sport based on academic credentials, athletic accolades or performances and volunteer service to the community. Every year one student is chosen from 16 universities and is granted the award.
El-Sayed notes however, that tennis in Egypt lacks a number of factors, starting with qualified coaches. He also regrets the lack of coordination between the school system and sports in general because training schedules are always inadequate for any student, which de-motivates and forces them to quit sports.
In addition, there is no proper funding. “Tennis is a very expensive sport, especially if you are playing internationally. Friends who are playing tennis exclusively can’t find any sponsors and they are completely dependent on their parents and their club, who fund the player as best they can to help him make the rankings, he says.
“I want to achieve certain objectives in tennis which I haven’t yet met. The Davis Cup was one of them. It was a long-term goal I’ve had for two years, which I have just accomplished last week.
Upon graduation from USF next May, El Sayed plans to play tennis exclusively for two years and then see where it goes and how he will manage it with a career in marketing.
His goal: to make the top 100 in world ranking.
With idols like Fernando Gonzalez from Chile, who currently ranks number 10 worldwide and lots of hard work, El-Sayed is sure he can make it.
“I like how he plays and his fighting spirit, I’m the same type of player as he is: an aggressive baseliner. He does what I am doing but at a much higher level of course, he says.
With tournaments in Egypt, Morocco and middle Africa this fall semester he is inching ever closer to his dream.