Arrival of the American Pharaohs

Did you all miss me? Probably not, but today is my first off day in a couple weeks so I figured I’d give you all an update about my time in Egypt. It’s pretty crazy to think I’ve already been here for 22 days, but this will just be a recap of the first two tournaments here.

Let’s take it all the way back to the beginning. We purchased our plane tickets to come to Egypt only two weeks in advance, but we were still able to buy a round trip for $957…. If we had waited one more day to buy them the prices went up to around $5,000, so thanks to my mom and dad for being on top of that; well actually, thanks to my mom for getting on my dad to be on top of that. As always though, the cheaper the flight, the worse the layovers. Our trip started with an 11am flight from Louisville to Chicago O’Hare where we had an 8 hour layover. Next came a 10 and a half hour flight from Chicago to Istanbul, Turkey where we had another 8 hour layover. The last leg of the trip was a short two hour flight from Istanbul to Sharm-el-Sheikh, Egypt, our new home for the next month. Short walk to baggage claim, quick taxi ride, and we were finally at our hotel. It’s still hard to believe I’m actually here right now.

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View overlooking our hotel

Our total travel time ended up being about 30 hours. Pretty crazy. Fortunately for me I can sleep just about anywhere anytime, so most of the flight time for me was spent dozing off in dreamland. It also helps that I have a super intense blindfold and noise cancelling headphones. The combo basically puts a little cloud around my head that drowns out everything; I don’t think I would survive traveling without them so it’s worth it even if I look like a bit of a clown. Another thing I’ve started to realize is that when I travel I feel like everything becomes one big blur. It is almost like the time slows down, and I really have no idea how long I’ve been gone. Once again, probably a good thing, because if you’re away from home for a month and you’re counting down every day you’ll just drive yourself insane.

After arriving, we only had one day before our first tournament. We were jet lagged, tired, stiff, and sore, but that’s all part of the job. As hard as it is playing matches day after day on top of sticking to a training plan, traveling is one of the most tiring parts of tennis. Flying halfway across the world with only one day to adjust to the time and figure everything else out is a bit stressful, but it also gives me a good taste of what my life is going to be like for a while. Now imagine that guys like Djokovic, Federer, and Nadal do this for 12 months out of the year and are performing at the highest possible level… it makes you appreciate what they’ve been able to accomplish.

I knew the first tournament here would be rough due to the quick turnaround, and I found myself in a battle early on. I was playing a lefty from Ukraine and dropped the first set 6-2. I was struggling to get going due to the jet lag, but early in the second set I got locked in. Now… I played college tennis for four years so I’m used to some shady line calls, but my opponent was making some pretty questionable ones that even college players wouldn’t dare to make. We’ll just leave it at that. Luckily, I’m extremely competitive and this got me fired up and helped me focus. Ultimately I fought back to take the last two sets 6-1 and 6-4.

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Playing my first match under the lights

Next match I played a crafty player from Switzerland. I jumped out to a quick lead in the first set 4-2 and served for the first set twice at 5-4 and 6-5, but I squandered four set points and ultimately lost the set 7-6. I battled back to take the second set 7-5, but lost in the third set 6-4. I played one bad service game in the third set and that was it. I was pretty disappointed with this loss because I felt I outplayed my opponent and should have won in straight sets. But as I’ve said before, pressure makes you do weird things. On the four set points, I missed two routine forehands, hit a double fault, and hit a backhand passing shot in the net tape. These are all shots I have made millions of times before in practice, but when winning is on the line in a match, they don’t always fall your way. I tried to remind myself that these were my first true singles matches since August, but that still doesn’t take the sting from the loss away.

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Got to play on center court this match. Photo credit to Mike Lippens

One thing that is difficult with pro tennis compared to college tennis is that you have to learn how to manage losses. You’re probably thinking “What is he talking about? Why do you ever want to get used to losing?” I completely agree. Trust me, I hate losing more than anything out there. Plenty of rackets have felt my wrath after a match that slipped away from me. But on the tour, there’s only one winner every week. If you don’t learn how to deal with the losses and see the positives in your results, you’ll drain yourself mentally and lose all confidence. Even at the ATP and Challenger level, it is usually the same guys winning over and over and over, so you have to be able to gear up for the next tournament even when you aren’t winning.

Since I lost on a Sunday, I had a full week to train before the next tournament as well as some time to go explore the little resort village. Practice wise, I was putting in a lot of court time with two-a-day practices and also going to the gym. With tennis, around 80% of your time is spent training, not competing, so it’s important to keep a good schedule and routine even if you’re on the road. Learning how to manage my training load and take care of my body has been a project for me ever since I went to college, but I think I’m finally starting to figure out what allows me to perform my best. Since graduating from Louisville in May, I actually haven’t touched a weight, and I’ve added a lot of stretching into my daily routine. I’ve also taken up yoga which has really improved my balance and dynamic flexibility, so I’m much less prone to injuries, a big problem for me in the past. The biggest change has been in my diet and sleeping patterns, though, which I talk about a bit below.

A big struggle for me here so far has been keeping with my diet. Earlier this summer, I read Novak Djokovic’s book, and a large part of it discusses why he chose to go gluten free. I wasn’t convinced at first, but I decided to try it out, and I can definitely say my tennis and health has benefitted. I feel like I can play for hours on end without getting tired, and I very rarely have the spikes and crashes in my energy level that used to hit me at the worst of times. For me, a gluten free diet is absolutely necessary to perform my best, but sticking to it here has been a bit tricky. A lot of the food is breaded and fried or topped with bread crumbs, and bread is a pretty big part of the diet here to begin with. Add to this that communicating with the workers in English is pretty difficult, so I really have to watch what I eat. I know you all are probably thinking “Seriously. Gluten? You think gluten is that big of an issue?” Trust me. I was just as skeptical about it at first. But there’s no denying the changes I’ve seen in my performance, energy levels, and quality of sleep. Now I don’t know if it’s something I’ll stick with once I’m older and done with tennis because I am total food junkie, but for now I am strict about it.

Another big concern with coming to Egypt was my seafood allergy. Luckily, the hotel restaurant has all of the food labeled so I know what to avoid, but at the restaurants I have to be extremely careful. We can also eat at a Lebanese restaurant called Café Chino for free. The first night we were there I tried explaining my allergy to the workers because I saw they had calamari and some fish dishes on the menu. After a couple of minutes of back and forth and what I took as them finally understanding was completely proven wrong when the waiter said “Ahhhhh! Seafood. Yes, my friend, we can bring you as much as you like.” No joke, thought there was a good chance I would have to use my Epipen later that night, but it turned out alright and we’ve been eating there ever since.

Our one off day this first week was spent at the beach connected to our resort hotel. When you walk down the path to the beach, you get a gorgeous view of the resort village as well as an overlook of the beach (check out the picture). Two of my friends from college tennis, Alex Lawson and Ben Lock, gave us some advice on the fun things to do, and at the top of their list was snorkeling. A short walk off the dock into the Red Sea, and the water is teeming with all sorts of different fish and coral reefs. I wish I had a way to take a picture for you all, but take my word for it that it’s pretty spectacular. We’ll definitely be coming back.

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A quick little funny story here about how we made our first friends in Egypt; at least I think it’s funny, I hope you do too. I traveled with my good friend Mike Lippens again, the same guy I went to Texas with. I’m pretty happy he was able to make this trip work out. Going to Egypt alone wasn’t high on my to do list and having a friend/training partner here with me makes it a way better experience. During the first week here, every new person we said hi to looked at us like we were 8 headed dragons about to rip their souls straight out of their bodies. Whether it is because we were American or we just look so intimidating (yeah, right), we were starting to get a little frustrated. We wanted to meet some of the other players here so we would have people to hang out with. You can only hang out with the same person so much.

We were heading to dinner one night after both losing. We were both pretty tired and disappointed with the losses, so all of our filters were in off mode. Right as we’re about to leave the hotel Mike sees another player walking about 20 yards ahead of us. Next thing I know he starts shouting “HEY! HEY! Are you eating alone tonight?” I was totally caught off guard and stopped in my tracks; my mind was immediately like ‘dear god, this girl is going to think we’re absolute psychos.’ Somehow the opposite happened, and she invited us to dinner with her and her friend. They’re also both tennis players here for the women’s tournaments and their names are Bianka and Szabina. So shoutout to them for actually saying hi back to us! (If you’re reading this and I haven’t mentioned you yet, don’t worry. I’ll make sure to talk about everyone else in the next post).

After a good week of training, it was time for the next tournament. I played the lefty from Ukraine again first round. Exact same player. Exact same court. Exact same time. Don’t ask me how it’s possible; the tennis gods must be playing jokes or something. I was expecting another battle this time, especially if the calls got out of hand again. But this time around there weren’t any problems. My opponent started out on fire and jumped out to a quick 3-0 lead, but he couldn’t sustain the level and ultimately I won 6-4, 6-1. I chalk it up to all the bad karma he put in the world the previous week, but who knows. Maybe I just played a better match. This first win put me in the final round of qualifying. I played the fourth seed in qualifying from India who had been doing well here the previous weeks. I expected myself to be pretty nervous, but my mind was in a good spot. I started off well and picked up on my opponent’s patterns really early on. I won the match 6-4, 6-3, but it was hardly a routine victory. Both sets I served for twice before closing them out, so there were definitely some nerves.

This put me in the first main draw of the year. I was pretty excited because we also received a doubles wildcard this week, so I was in main draw singles and doubles. I ended up losing 6-4 6-2 in my singles match to a good player from Ukraine. I still swear the guy was playing baseball instead of tennis because of how hard and flat he hit the ball. I honestly don’t see how it’s physically possible that some of his shots went in, but props to him for a good match. Usually I can tell when I’m nervous because my mind is racing and my legs feel heavy, but I didn’t have that this time. My arm felt like cement, though, so midway through the first set my shots abandoned me. This was only the second main draw match of my life, so I took the experience points and moved on.

In doubles we won our first round match 6-4, 6-4. It was fun to play with Mike because we both know each other’s games so well. I was also happy to be out there and help him get his first ever main draw win. I know the nerves and tension before you get that monkey off your back, so I’m happy I was a part of that win with him. Next round we lost to the 2 seeds 6-2, 6-7, 10-6. One of the guys was ranked 340 ATP… aka he is a hell of a player. We had our chances in the third set but came up a bit short. These guys also went on to win the tournament. Once again, disappointing to lose, but good experience to see we are able to compete at this level.

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Remember the travel blur I told you about? It’s been a little over two weeks now but part of me feels like I’ve only been gone 3 days. I completely lose track of days of the week and time when I’m on the road. But I miss my friends and family back home. Since I’ve been gone I missed Halloween, and I’ll be missing my mom and grandma’s birthday as well as thanksgiving. It can be tough at times looking at all the stuff your friends are doing together while you’re 6,349 miles away chasing your dream, but I still wouldn’t trade my position for anything in the world. I’m just thankful I have friends and family that actually support me and believe in me.

Feel free to send me any comments or questions! I enjoy writing these posts, but really I want them to be for you all. If you like them, let me know. If they’re boring, let me know. I’m trying to give you a glimpse into the reality of my life on the road while also entertaining you all, so any feedback is good. Sorry for such a long post this time as well. I’m going to start posting more often so stay tuned. Thanks for all the support and I can’t wait to see everyone when I’m back home!

 

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11 comments

  1. Love the update! Hopefully with all the work , it has also been fun! Are you packing ? Safe travels , hug yourself for me! 😎

    Pat A. Parks
    Sent from my iPhone

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  2. omg I JUST finished Novak’s book as well and started working on adjusting my new diet as well, so far, so good. You see, you’re inspire by leading even when you’re 6,000 miles away, Go guys! Paul Petty

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    1. Thanks for keeping up with me Paul! It’s a great book and has definitely changed the way I approach my diet. It was a bit of work at first but I’m seeing the payoff from it. Excited to get back on the court with you and Dean once I’m back home!

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  3. Alex, I know you are having the time of your life. I really enjoy reading about your adventures and how your tennis is going. I want you to know we at the Dunker household are keeping you in our thoughts and prayers. I hope you get some more wins under your belt and your career goes the way you want it to. Keep up the writing and I will keep on reading.

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    1. Thank you all for the support! I really appreciate you taking the time to read this and send me some good thoughts. It makes it a lot easier on the road when you know people back home want you to do well. Hope everything is going well for you and the family.

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  4. Hi Alex! Thanks for the great posts! This experience will definitely test your mettle and enrich you . Stay positive, focused and believe in yourself! Wishing you success and safe travels. Take care!
    Sweet Tea (& Gluten Free) Leigh

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