PARIS (Reuters) - Grigor Dimitrov did not let a last-minute switch in opponent throw him off his stride as he subdued Egyptian lucky loser Mohamed Safwat 6-1 6-4 7-6(1) in the first round of the French Open on Sunday.
Safwat’s appearance on the Philippe Chatrier arena caught a lot of people by surprise, not least the organisers who were still flagging up Dimitrov’s showdown against Serbia’s Viktor Troicki on the large screens around Roland Garros even as the players made their way on to court.
But with Troicki pulling out with a lower back injury, the bearded Safwat was suddenly given a platform to make his Grand Slam main draw debut at the age of 27 despite losing in the final round of qualifying.
So when exactly did Dimitrov discover that the identity of his first-round opponent had changed?
“I finished my warm-up and went to the locker room and Viktor told me ‘good luck’ and I was like ‘what’s going on’?” a bemused Dimitrov said courtside.
It was a sentiment shared by Safwat.
“I didn’t understand what was going on,” he said. “I didn’t even think for a second that I would have to go on court in the first match. I was (already) thinking (about) what I will do for the rest of the day.”
With little time to collect his thoughts on becoming the first Egyptian man to make it into the main draw of a major in 22 years, Safwat appeared to be suffering from a serious bout of stage fright as within 40 minutes the Bulgarian fourth seed had romped to a 6-1 4-1 lead.
A medical time out taken by Safwat to treat blisters on his playing right hand gave him a chance to calm down his frayed nerves. The 182nd-ranked Egyptian skipped back to the baseline following the interlude and won back-to-back games for the first time in the contest by breaking Dimitrov.
The potions and lotions applied by the tournament’s trainer allowed Safwat to serve more confidently and he twice came within a game of taking the third set.
However, the challenge of toppling one of the top seeds was a task too far for a player who, before Sunday, had earned a grand total of $352,674 prize money after 11 years as a professional.
A netted backhand might have ended Safwat’s French Open odyssey but that did nothing to stop him from celebrating the standout moment in his career.
“When I was young, I was watching (Roger) Federer and Gustavo Kuerten play and I was recording the match,” said Safwat, who had never been inside Philippe Chatrier Court before walking out for his match on Sunday.
“I was always dreaming to play there. And, yeah, it’s a dream come true. Definitely this is a milestone in my career.”
Reporting by Pritha Sarkar, editing by Christian Radnedge