As the continent’s top-ranked player prepares for a memorable return to the Olympics after her debut eight years ago, she reflects on her career highs and tells the Olympic Channel why the best of Africa is yet to come.
Dina Meshref could be a natural-born champion.
The Egyptian was meant to play table tennis, as all her family members played the game.
Her parents were national champions and it was only natural that as soon as she could hold a racket, she found herself in a court practising.
Her family wanted her to chart a different path, so Meshref opted for tennis. It turned out to be a brief encounter before table tennis claimed her.
“I was just passing by the table tennis hall and then I fell in love with the game. When I tried it, I preferred to continue table tennis and stop playing tennis,” she told the Olympic Channel from Weihai, China, where she was the only African female player competing at the 2020 Women's World Cup.
“I think I benefitted a lot from my family’s previous experience in table tennis, like being champions of the game.”
By 12 she had already made the cut for the national team, and four years later she took part in the 2010 Youth Olympic Games in Singapore. And now after London 2012 and Rio 2016 she is raring to go again at the Tokyo Games.
“My main goal is to keep improving my level until the Olympic Games. I want to continue and keep growing more because I believe I still can do more.”
Table tennis has been part of Meshref’s life. Her parents and siblings were accomplished players nationally.
The 26-year-old has outdone her family mentors not only in terms of Egypt caps but also in terms of international achievements.
“My sporting experience started when I was seven or eight years old. My parents preferred that I play a new sport because all my family were table tennis players,” she recalled.
“They thought maybe I should start playing tennis. And then by coincidence, one day I was just passing by the table tennis hall and I fell in love with the game."
Meshref seemed perfectly suited for the table and her phenomenal rise was almost immediate. She soaked up the pressure to perform and took it as a challenge.
“My parents might have put a little bit pressure on me, but it was a positive thing, not a negative thing. They wanted me to be perfect, but anyway I'm a perfectionist.
"So I took their advice as like just a way to push myself harder and to become better," she said of her early days in the sport.
“Year after year, with the accomplishments I achieved since I was young, made me think I want to continue and grow more.”
She was an automatic pick for the 2010 Youth Olympics and easily qualified for London 2012 at 18, where she reached the second round.
Since 2012, the six-time African champion has occupied the top spot amongst Africa’s senior women players. It is a huge source of pride but not her main drive.
“I just try my best not to think that I’m ranked number one or something because if I just keep that in my mind, it will put pressure on me. I try to forget about it, as I always remember in table tennis, anyone can beat anyone.”
The Egyptian, who in 2018 won the Mediterranean Games singles title, currently plays in the German Bundesliga for Langstadt.
In addition to her home club El-Ahly, where she is currently based alongside her mentee the 12-year-old sensation Hana Goda, Meshref has also featured for clubs in Greece, Sweden and Turkey.
What does it take to be the top African female table tennis player?
“I took part in many leagues and gained some sort of experience that has definitely helped me through my career,” Meshref, who is known for her strong deep diagonal backhand, offered.
“I try my best to always learn from my mistakes. Like when I play in Germany, sometimes I win, sometimes I lose. When I lose, I come out with a lot of learned lessons. And here (Weihai) as well, in such a big event as the Women's World Cup, I played against two very strong players. I gained a lot of experience playing them and learnt that I have a lot to work on.”
Meshref says she admires the Chinese players, especially the 20-year-old Sun Yingsha who in November won the inaugural World Table Tennis exhibition event.
The left-handed player has faced tougher opponents, gained more experience and feels better prepared for the challenge at the Tokyo Olympics in July 2021.
“I'm still aiming for more because I believe I still can do more,” said Meshref.
“I'm currently based in Egypt and only go to Germany for the league matches. I am practising with my Chinese coach, who's going to be with me until the Olympic Games. During the lockdown, we worked on improving my forehand and it’s much stronger now.”
Meshref and compatriot Omar Assar, a seven-time African champion who was also in London and Rio, will lead the African charge in Tokyo.
Four years ago, Quadri Aruna beat the former world number one Timo Boll to become the first African quarterfinalist at the Olympics in an upset victory that gave hope to Meshref and other African players.
“Anything can happen in sport. There is a lot of progress (amongst African players) and I see the level rising each time we participate in an African championship or an African event or even in world championships.”
She continued: “They motivate me to keep going and when I feel that I'm still capable of winning, that gives me hope.”
Meshref not only represents African women table tennis players but also inclusion.
She recently decided to start competing with the hijab, the Muslim headdress, by choice.
She hopes her new look will inspire even more Muslim girls into sport.
“In my religion, it's obligatory for women to put on the hijab. However, my family always left it to me to choose. The last couple of months, I decided to wear the hijab and not take it off anymore,” Meshref explained.
“In the beginning, I wasn't used to it (training and playing with it). It was a bit tough.
"But then after some time, I just forgot that I was wearing something extra."