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On road to Tokyo, Egyptian underdog pair get rid of first-round blues

Before the India Open, the Egyptian pair of Doha Hany (left) and Hadia Hosny El Said had not won a single main-draw match at even a Grand Prix-level tournament. BWF

Before she travelled to India for the week-long India Open World Tour 500 event, where she would compete in the women's doubles event, Egypt's Hadia Hosny El Said requested her employer for just two days' leave. "Very honestly, I didn't think we would need more days than that," says Said. The 30-year-old has been partnering Doha Hany for three years now and the pair had never won a single main-draw match at even a Grand Prix (as the World Tour 300 events used to be known till a couple of years ago). A match at a Superseries (or World Tour 500-scale event) was unfathomable.

But Said and Hany managed to do just that at the KD Jadhav Indoor Stadium on Tuesday evening where they beat the American pairing of Ariel and Sydney Lee 21-9, 21-15. "It was completely unexpected," a beaming Said after that win.

It's a win that has been a long time in the making for Said. She started her sporting career as a squash player, rising to No. 5 in the Egyptian U-11 rankings. It's particularly impressive when you consider that the No. 1 player back then was Raneem El Weleily, the current world No. 1. While Said says she still is close friends with Weleily as well as the rest on the Egyptian squash circuit, her heart is firmly with badminton, which she picked up at the suggestion of a coach when she was 12.

She hasn't done too badly for herself. She's by far Egypt's most successful badminton player, winning two singles titles on the International Series (the lowest rung on the BWF professional tour) and has competed at the 2008 and 2012 Olympics, even winning a round in the latter competition. But the lack of resources and a tiny talent pool are a perennial stumbling block.

"Badminton in Egypt isn't like how it is in Asia," says Said. "China, for example, has 20 very good players who compete at the international level. We have four or five players who are any good and the age gap between our players is a lot. For example, I'm 30 years old and Doha is 21. The next good player after that is 15 years old."

The lack of financial support too is a serious limiting factor for Said and Hany. Neither is a completely professional player, having to divide time between badminton and a job as a teaching assistant at a pharmacological college (as in the case of Said) or being an engineering student (as in the case of Hany). "It's difficult even to be able to train together," says Said. "We probably train with each other one day in the week or maybe in a month. Otherwise we only get to play together during a competition."

Indeed, unlike teams from the powerhouses of Asia and Europe, the two Egyptians have to pay their own way to come to India. To make do, they cut expenses where they can. They aren't staying in the five-star hotel the rest of the teams are in, for example. "Our hotel is seven or eight kilometres away, but it's a lot cheaper," smiles Said.

Despite all these shortcomings, the two Egyptians, ranked 109 in the world, have a goal in mind. "We are determined to qualify for Tokyo, which is why we have come here on our own expense," says Said.

She had come close to competing in her third Olympics in 2016 as part of a mixed doubles team but her world ranking of 51 (alongside Abdelrahman Kashkal, who incidentally is Hany's fiancée) left her just out of a chance to go to Rio (the pair's ranking had needed to be inside the top 50 to earn a quota place).

She's hoping she doesn't miss out for the Tokyo Games. "This year we have been going to tournaments on our own expense," says Said. "Maybe once the Olympic qualification period starts, we will get some funding from our federation, but for now we are on our own."

But what the pair might lack in money and a support structure, they make do with enthusiasm and goodwill. "We have been lucky that everyone is usually very helpful," says Said. "All the Indian coaches try to give us tips when we play. Another Indian player even made the video recordings for us during our match."

The two back each other to the hilt too. "She's like my big sister," says Hany. With Hany deciding to play while wearing a headscarf for reasons of modesty, Said, who normally plays in a skirt, has decided to play in long pants.

Having won their first round, the Egyptians will have to wait a day to learn who they will be playing next. They aren't looking that far ahead though. "For now we have to get our leave extended by a few more days," says Said with a smile.