Egypt has conquered its troubles to become a hotbed for the wannabes of world tennis
By Mike Dickson
The global spread of tennis is a long-established phenomenon, but many would still view the main centres of the game to be the four Grand Slam nations, or perhaps those which keep churning out top 100 players, such as Spain or Germany.
So which country is home to the highest number of professional tournaments, with precious world ranking points on offer?
Remarkably it is not France, where the sport is so much part of the country’s fabric, or the USA, with its huge network and resources but, of all places, strife-torn Egypt.
This year it is scheduled to host no less than 91 events, 51 of them for women and 40 for men, all of them in the Red Sea resort of Sharm El Sheikh, making it the Wimbledon of tennis’s dispossessed and its wannabes, those desperately scrapping to climb the ladder.
It should be said that these are at the opposite end of the spectrum to the All England Championships, with all but three of the tournaments offering the lowest tier prize purse of $10,000 to the participants.
The existence of this multitude of playing opportunities – virtually one every week of the year for women – owes itself to a resourceful scheme to both cultivate tennis in Egypt and aid tourism.
One objective is to help maintain a steady flow of paying guests into the resort and the two hotels whose courts act as the venue.
Mohamed Elghazawy, a sports and business entrepreneur and former player on the American college tennis circuit, came up with the idea, which has so far survived the political upheavals that have caused problems elsewhere for tourism, such as in Cairo.
Up and coming professional players arrive every week to stay at the Jolie Ville and Soho Square hotels to compete for the points and modest prize money which they hope will send them on their way to the upper echelons of the tour.
For example Belinda Bencic, the 16 year-old Swiss being touted as a possible successor to Martina Hingis, won her first professional title in Sharm El Sheikh before swiftly graduating up towards Grand Slam level. British number four Naomi Broady is top seed at this week’s event.
'Some players will stay two or three weeks but we have others who might stay and play six to eight here,' says Elghazawy, currently overseeing his eleventh week of tournaments this year.
'For the players it is quite a low cost way of playing in well organised events because you do not need to travel once you are here and the accommodation is good.
'The first idea is to do something that helps my country because tourism is very important, there are five million Egyptians employed in this area. The second is to help tennis in this country.
'We give our Davis Cup and Fed Cup players free accommodation so they can avoid a lot of expensive travel abroad.
'The ambition is to get a player into the main draw of Wimbledon or Roland Garros (national number one Mohamed Safwat is currently ranked 210).
'This would be very big for tennis in Egypt, for that to be seen on television. Squash is the biggest racket sport here and I want to get tennis up to that level.
'I don’t make any money out of this, I actually lose it because it is hard to get sponsors but I don’t mind.'
It remains a struggle to reassure people that it is safe to travel there at a time when the wider country is so much in the news for the political turmoil that has come in the wake of the election, and subsequent deposing, of the Muslim Brotherhood government.
Elghazawy is currently fretting over some countries advising their players not to visit. 'It’s a bit of a worry, we’ve had Germany and America telling players not to come, and in recent weeks there have been problems with the Netherlands and Belgium.
'I think we are getting caught up in some of the wider political things, there are some countries telling their people not to visit Egypt for political reasons, but it is very safe here and we want to welcome people from all countries. The situation is far more stable than it was.'
He hopes it will not deter higher ranked players coming to the three Challenger level tournaments he plans later this year, and the dream it to soon host a full ATP Tour event in this surprisingly busy outpost of the game.