By Martin Cleary
Shaheer Mikhail was 10 years old when he discovered the sport of tennis at his elementary school in Beni-Suef, Egypt, which is about 150 kilometres south of Cairo.
“Because there were two courts at school, I approached a teacher and said I was interested in tennis. I had seen the players in their white uniforms and I thought I would like to give it a try,” Mikhail said in a recent phone interview.
“We had a trainer at the school. He trained me to make the school team and the city team.”
When Mikhail started, he would borrow a racquet from the school to learn the basics and return it when he was finished. But when he became a competitive tournament player, his grandmother gave him his deceased uncle’s racquet. It didn’t matter that it was wooden with no grip tape on the handle.
“It made me keen to play,” Mikhail enthused.
That was 70 years ago. Wonder what the trainer would think about Mikhail’s journey along the tennis trail over the past eight decades, especially the past 18 years.
The retired Ottawa scientist went on to win some junior tournaments in Egypt, play university tennis as he earned his bachelor and masters degrees at Cairo University and his PhD in Norway, and then ease into community tennis at the former Rideau Tennis and Squash Club once he moved to Ottawa in 1975.
Mikhail, 82, plays a consistent, old-school game of tennis, which has and continues to serve him well on the court. He won the National Capital Tennis Association men’s singles title in 1980 and was always a tough match on the Ottawa tennis scene.
But it wasn’t until 2006, when he was 65, that he decided to spread his wings and test his skills on the Canadian and world tennis landscape.
“For many years, a couple of my friends, Evelyn Hustwit and Jim Cameron, kept after me to play outside of Ottawa,” added Mikhail, who made that career step 18 years ago and learned a lot about himself as a tennis player.
During that time, Mikhail has played in 15 Canadian senior outdoor tennis championships, winning the men’s singles title in his age group six times and reaching three other finals.
His championship seasons were in 2009 in the men’s 65-69 age class, 2012 in 70-74, 2016-18 in 75-79 and 2022 in 80-84. He fell one win shy of achieving three other national titles and was a finalist in 2007 in 65-69, 2011 in 70-74 and 2023 in 80-84.
Tennis Canada’s season-end singles rankings showed Mikhail reached the No. 1 step seven times – 2009 in men’s 65-69, 2011 and 2012 in 70-74, 2016-18 in 75-79 and 2022 in 80-84.
Mikhail also was a doubles champion six times – 2012 with Guido Weber in men’s 70-74, 2016-18 with Weber in men’s 75-79, 2014 with Eric Bojesen in 70-74 and 2023 with John Tibbits in 80-84.
At last month’s Canadian senior championships in Montreal, Mikhail reached two men’s 80-84 finals, winning the doubles with John Tibbits, the president of Conestoga College in Kitchener, ON., but losing the singles title to his partner.
After winning his first two matches by losing only five games in four sets, Mikhail dropped the singles final 6-4, 6-3 to Tibbits. In the four-team doubles round-robin, Mikhail and Tibbits were undefeated at 3-0, winning 36 of their 41 games.
“I was satisfied with my match,” Mikhail commented on his singles final. “I have slight tennis elbow, but that’s not an excuse. I did as much as I could to get to the final. John Tibbits is a very strong player.”
The outdoor tournament season isn’t over yet for Mikhail as he has qualified again to represent Canada at the International Tennis Federation super-seniors team world championships Oct. 8-13 in Mallorca, Spain. He also has attended world championships in Turkey (twice), Croatia, Austria and Australia.
In the past seven years, he has achieved his best ITF rankings – 26th and 28th respectively in 2016 and 2018 in the men’s 75-79 class, and 36th in 2022 in the 80-84 division.
When you watch Mikhail play his game on the court, it’s a throw-back to the good-old days, hitting controlled and accurate shots, using all the court and making his opponents run.
“I have an old-fashioned style,” he admitted. “The new tennis looks strange to me. I have a classic style with a flat serve, no top spin and consistency. I use drop shots, the full court. It’s not a killing game.”
“I don’t have a strong aspect to my game. I’m strong from both sides with a good serve. One thing I consistently learned at school was to hit the ball back over the net. Most players my age get impatient and want to finish the point. I try to make the least number of unforced errors.”
Mikhail follows the “get-the-ball-back” philosophy because he does just enough, age-suited training to support his game. When he’s in the gym, his exercises are light to prevent injuries. On the court, he’ll play tennis three to four times a week in the outdoor season and twice a week in winter.
“I must be careful. I try not to overdo it,” he added.
At age 82, Mikhail has traded in his childhood, bare-bones wooden racquet and now operates with a Wilson Blade 90 for the right amount of power and control.
As for the future, there is no end in sight.
“Each year has been a bonus,” Mikhail said.
Martin Cleary has written about amateur sports for 50 years. A past Canadian sportswriter of the year and Ottawa Sports Awards Lifetime Achievement in Sport Media honouree, Martin retired from full-time work at the Ottawa Citizen in 2012, but continued to write a bi-weekly “High Achievers” column for the Citizen/Sun.
When the pandemic struck, Martin created the High Achievers “Stay-Safe Edition” to provide some positive news during tough times, via his Twitter account at first and now here at OttawaSportsPages.ca.
Martin can be reached by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org and on Twitter @martincleary.
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