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Volume 25, Number 4July/August 1974

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"You see, I'm not yet Number One."

Written by Helen Gibson
Photographed by Nicholas Kourides

Absentmindedly, Ismael El-Shafei bounced his daughter on his knee, suspending thought as two white-clad tennis pros volleyed for the match point on the TV screen. Engrossed in the game, he fell silent as a forehand smash ended the set. Then, as the camera panned across the applauding audience and zoomed in on the two players shaking hands across the net, he looked up and gave a quick summary of professional tennis fame: "When you play well, you're a hero and you're cheered. When you play badly, you're booed and no one wants to know you."

Ismael El-Shafei—"Shaf" to colleagues—should know. As the Arab world's first professional tennis star he has had his share of applause and boos. Starting at the age of six, when his father first led him onto a baking baseline in Heliopolis, he fought his way up to a national championship in Egypt, moved into professional tennis and last year was a strong contender at prestigious Wimbledon and Forest Hills. En route he became Wimbledon junior champion in 1964, winner at the Orange Bowl in 1965, German Indoors Champion in 1968 and runner-up in the United States in 1969.

In reviewing those triumphs some months ago in London Shaf made it plain that he was by no means satisfied yet. "Sure, I've beaten all the top players at one time or another—Laver, Newcombe, Ashe—but that is just not enough. I have to stay up there, and until I do, I cannot feel I have really done anything."

They certainly wouldn't say that in Egypt. There, on home courts, Shaf has dazzled tennis fans with his prowess, won two national Medals of Sport and, in 1969, the coveted title of Sportsman of the Year, no mean feat in a country where fanatical soccer fans scorn such lowly pastimes as tennis.

In return for such tributes—which he mentions with open pride—Shaf has tried hard to promote tennis in Egypt by participating as often as possible in home events and by encouraging other international stars to accompany him. In the 1973 International Championships at the Gezira Club he was rewarded by a turn-out of 7,500 spectators, an all-time high for audience figures in Egyptian tennis. In 1973, too, El-Shafei for the first time joined Egypt's Davis Cup team—and helped win a resounding victory over Turkey (5-0) and Poland (4-1) to reach the zone quarter finals.

Still, it was on the international circuit that Shaf's fast, aggressive game and spectacular double-handed backhand began to win him the reputation he now has as a potential great on the World Championship Tennis (WCT) circuit. Despite the burden of being secretary of the Association of Tennis Professionals during the controversial 1973 season, Shaf faced and beat such top seeded pros as Arthur Ashe in Essen and Cleveland, Marty Riessen in Montreal and Essen and Tom Okker in Washington. With his doubles partner of three years, New Zealand's Brian Fairlie, he also reached the WCT finals in San Francisco and upset Okker and John Newcombe in Miami. He tied Roy Emerson and Tony Roche in one six-month bout of WCT championships and eventually carried home more than $25,600 in prize money for the season, up $500 from the previous year's earnings.

Even those victories, according to John MacDonald, playing director of WCT, are more indications of better things to come than high points in Shaf's career. MacDonald is convinced that the Egyptian star has still not developed his full potential and predicts that Shaf could soar to the very top within the next few years.

Such praise evokes little more than a pleased shrug from Shaf, who, colleagues report, is a modest man still unspoiled by the glamour surrounding a jet-age international sports star. This is particularly striking considering that he is also endowed with the dark, virile good looks that Omar Sharif has made famous and the classical athlete's body (168 pounds, 5'11") that ancient Greek sculptors immortalized and that sends girls screaming for coat buttons. As one of Shaf's sponsors says, "He not only plays good, he also looks good."

When he can, Shaf also tries to keep the pro-circuit glamour from interfering with his life with wife Nouha, whom he courted and married between practice sessions at the Cairo Tennis Club, and daughter Dina, a brisk two-year-old. Both travel with him three months out of the eight months he's on the road and enjoy it. Nouha, in fact, enjoys it immensely even when tight schedules restrict them to hotels and the dreary restaurant diets that Shaf loathes.

On the whole, however, life on the professional tennis circuit leaves little time to think about home, or anything else but practicing, playing and traveling. Glamourous it may be, but, molded by tournaments that follow dizzily behind one another in cities scattered sometimes thousands of miles apart, it is also a tough and exhausting way to earn a living. In El-Shafei's 1972 schedule, there was only one day between the end of a tournament in Essen, Germany, and the opening of one in Goteburg, Sweden. And players reaching the finals at Houston, Texas, had less than a day to reach the opening of the championships in Quebec City, Canada.

Shaf's schedule is often tighter than other players' because of an addiction to practice which, says MacDonald, makes him one of the hardest workers on the circuit. If defeated in one tournament, he leaves on the first plane for wherever the next matches are to be played to gain an edge by extra practice on the new courts.

"The pressure is enormous," said Shaf, "but you can't let up. Any sign of weakness and the newer, younger players will be snapping at your heels. I know because I've done it myself."

Concern about "younger" players may sound odd in a man not yet 27, but in fact Shaf is already a veteran in WCT terms. In 1969 when Texan oil millionnaire Lamar Hunt, sponsored the WCT to give tennis the same standing and commercial success enjoyed by sports like golf, Shaf was among the first 18 players to sign up.

Even then, said friends, WCT scouts realized he was a natural for the circuit. He had personality, a finely tuned sense of public relations, good looks and most of all a hard, fast game involving a formidable serve, a tricky top spin lob, a dangerous smash and a taste for action at the net.

His off-court activities drew almost as much appreciation. A lover of the sport for its own sake, Shaf is noted for his efforts to promote tennis with laymen, a chore that draws grumbles from some players. As one of his colleagues put it, "He's the one who visits the orphanages."

But not, Shaf says, at the expense of his game. That comes first and always has since his father first introduced him to tennis back in 1954.

His father, Adly El-Shafei, a former pilot with the Egyptian Air Force, had won the Egyptian amateur championships 13 times and wanted his son to share his enthusiasm for the sport. To foster it he practiced almost every night with the boy at the Heliopolis Club, only 300 yards from their home, and wound up giving him a deadline: win a national championship before you turn 18.

As it turned out, Shaf didn't need that long. At 15, still a student at the French Lycée, he battled his way into the national championship finals and took on the reigning Egyptian of the time. Shaf says he was not worried because although the champion was experienced, he was also 35. As Shaf recalled it the first two sets proved that he had underestimated the value of experience. "He beat the hell out of me." Fortunately for Shaf—and the WCT—Shaf pulled a breakthrough in the third set, as the older player tired, and after that the game was his all the way.

Completing secondary school, Shaf moved to Cairo University where he mixed economics with his tennis—but not too heavily. While still a student he won the coveted Wimbledon and Orange Bowl Championships.

The crunch came when he graduated, began working in public relations for Egypt Air and found his game faltering. So, seven months later he decided to sink everything into tennis and turn professional. It was a hard decision, but within months the WCT stepped in and he was on his way.

With three years still remaining before he reaches what experts consider a tennis player's prime, no one can say how far he will go. But in explaining why he practices so much Shaf left no doubts as to how far he wants to go. "You see," he said quietly, "I'm not yet Number One."

Helen Gibson, formerly with UPI, now freelances from London.

This article appeared on pages 18-23 of the July/August 1974 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.


Check the Public Affairs Digital Image Archive for July/August 1974 images.