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Safwat's Roland Garros dream comes true -- at one hour's notice

© AFP / by Dave JAMES | Take a chance: Egypt's Mohamed Safwat hits a winner against Grigor Dimitrov

PARIS (AFP) - 

When Mohamed Safwat was growing up in Mansoura in Egypt, he'd marvel at the TV images of Gustavo Kuerten, Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer, dreaming of one day emulating his heroes at Roland Garros.

On Sunday, that lifelong wish came true even if it arrived with only a one-hour warning.

When experienced Serbian star Viktor Troicki suffered a back injury and withdrew from the tournament opener on Philippe Chatrier Court against fourth-seeded Grigor Dimitrov of Bulgaria, it opened the door for lucky loser Safwat.

He had never played a Grand Slam match before Sunday and his form is so modest that he has just one top-level win to his name all year.

"I found out I would play at 10:00, like one hour before the match," said world number 182 Safwat who had been knocked out of the tournament when he lost in the last round of qualifying to Guido Andreozzi of Argentina.

"They told me, Do you know the news? They said I might go on court at 11:00. I said, okay.

"I had my stuff in the locker room over at Suzanne Lenglen court. So I had to go there. I have to come back. So I try to deal with it as best I can."

Safwat's challenge eventually petered out in a 6-1, 6-4, 7-6 (7/1) loss after overcoming a tense start and blisters in the second set.

At the end, he and Dimitrov, both 27, shared a warm embrace, reunited for the first time since their junior days.

"He's a great guy," said Dimitrov.

Their careers have taken radically different paths in the last decade.

Dimitrov has made the Wimbledon semi-finals, been compared to Federer, romanced Maria Sharapova and has banked $15 million.

Safwat struggles on the second-tier Challenger Tour, playing in the sport's outposts of Nanchang in China, Barletta in Italy and St Brieuc in France.

This year he had made just $40,000 and $350,000 in his career, comparative small change in the sport.

Safwat admitted he had never even set foot inside the Philippe Chatrier Court before Sunday's last-minute summons.

"I always dreamed to play on centre court with such a crowd. And I had thoughts I might get in here and play Nadal in the first round," said Safwat for whom tennis is in the blood -- his mother, father and brother all play.

"I never ever thought I will go out in the final round and then have a chance to compete in a tournament, in the main draw, in a Grand Slam against a good player in the centre court in Philippe Chatrier.

"It's something I always saw on TV, but I never had the experience to see. So it was really, really enjoyable for me."

It had been 22 years since an Egyptian man last played a Grand Slam.

That honour fell to Tamer El Sawy at the 1996 US Open.

That would have been the time the young Safwat would have started watching entranced as triple Roland Garros champion Kuerten, then 20-time Slam winner Federer and Nadal, now chasing an 11th French Open title, made their mark.

"Gustavo Kuerten at that time was playing. And then I saw Nadal when I was young. You know, it started to inspire me and it started, like, yeah, maybe one day, you know, why not? Why not I cannot play there."

Safwat, who is based in Austria, believes he can push on from here.

"In Egypt we don't really have the knowledge of the game but this is a milestone in my career," he said.

by Dave JAMES

© 2018 AFP