Egyptian a French Open 'lucky loser' in more ways than one
PARIS (AP) — The first man from Egypt to play in a Grand Slam tournament in 22 years walked off Court Philippe Chatrier with a wave and a big smile, his exit accompanied by loud cheers from spectators who chanted his name during the match.
No way to tell without glancing at the scoreboard that Mohamed Safwat lost at the French Open in a Day 1 match that was not even all that close, 6-1, 6-4, 7-6 (1) against fourth-seeded Grigor Dimitrov. Safwat was, as they say, just happy to be there Sunday — in part because, as someone who failed to get through qualifying, he found out less than an hour beforehand that he was going to play in the main draw.
"A milestone in my career," said Safwat, who is ranked 182nd and competes mostly in lower-rung Challenger tournaments. "I'm just celebrating what I've done this week."
He was the seventh "lucky loser" to get into the men's field at Roland Garros, an unusually high number that is considered likely to be a record but can't be verified by the International Tennis Federation — and an eighth player who was beaten in the last round of qualifying will get in Monday to replace the injured Nick Kyrgios, who was seeded 21st.
This is the second major tournament under a rule adopted by the Grand Slam Board in November that lets players collect half of their first-round prize money if they are "unfit to play" and withdraw after noon on Thursday but before the main draw begins. Their replacement gets the other half — 20,000 euros (about $23,000) at the French Open — plus whatever they might accumulate by winning matches in qualifying or the tournament itself.
The reasoning behind the change: Injured or ill players won't start a match simply to collect their prize money before quitting.
"Definitely, it opened more spots, not only for me, (but also) for other players," Safwat said.
When Victor Troicki pulled out Sunday because of an injured lower back, Safwat was able to become the first Egyptian in a major since Tamer El Sawy at the 1996 U.S. Open.
The 27-year-old Safwat arrived at the French Open grounds to warm up from 9 to 9:30 a.m., in hope of a long-shot entry after six other men had gotten in his way. After practicing, he signed in to the "lucky loser" list on the off-chance there would be a seventh withdrawal. Eventually, the good news arrived.
He had everything in the qualifying locker room at Court Suzanne Lenglen, so he needed to head there, gather his belongings and head across the way to the main stadium.
"Try to deal with it as best I can," Safwat said.
Dimitrov said he got even less notice, learning of the change in opponents only because he ran into Troicki in the Chatrier locker room about a half-hour before the match's scheduled 11 a.m. start.
"Viktor goes, 'Good luck.' I'm like, 'What's going on?'" said Dimitrov, a two-time Grand Slam semifinalist. "I just needed, like, five, 10 minutes to disconnect from what I had in mind to play and what I wanted to do and kind of, you know, look at the few videos of the way (Safwat) was playing."
When it finished, Dimitrov patted his opponent on the right shoulder up at the net. Rarely has a losing player looked quite as pleased as Safwat did, a pair of tournament towels slung over his shoulder as he departed.
A short while later, Safwat explained that he remembers recording TV broadcasts of past champions Rafael Nadal, Roger Federer and Gustavo Kuerten playing at the French Open.
"It started, like, to inspire me," Safwat said, "and it started (thoughts of): 'Maybe, one day, you know, why not?'"
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