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Wednesday, 20 November 2019

Egypt's superpower in squash

Football is the world’s number one sport in every country, but squash is becoming the pride of many Egyptians

Inas Mazhar , Sunday 29 Sep 2019
A superpower in squash
Although squash has been played since the 1930s, it was Barada (top left) who took the game to another level, after which other champions followed suit as married couple Farag and Al-Tayeb, Shabana and married couple Moemen and Al-Welili
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For almost three decades, squash has been one of the most successful and popular sports in Egypt, thanks to the remarkable and outstanding achievements that many Egyptian players have had in the game. The rest of the world has been left awed and bewildered by this success, wondering what the Egyptians have been and are still doing to rule the world of squash. What are the Egyptians doing that the rest of the world is not?

According to the Professional Squash Association (PSA), it can almost sometimes seem as if squash has become a sport with only two teams: Egypt on one side and the rest of the world on the other. There is speculation growing as to whether the rest of the world is capable of fighting back against the mighty Egyptian champions next season.

The world governing body of the PSA sees Egypt as the “undisputed powerhouse nation in squash at present”, with four of the top 10 spots in the PSA Women’s World Rankings and five of the top 10 places in the Men’s World Rankings comprising players from the country. This is in addition to the fact that both the men’s and the women’s World Champions and World No-1s are Egyptians, and all but one of the PSA Platinum titles ended up in Egyptian hands last season. Everything points to another season of Egyptian dominance on the PSA World Tour.

The extraordinary achievements of Egypt’s players of all age groups in both men’s and women’s world and international squash competitions have created a link between the country and the sport. Indeed, whenever squash is mentioned, the answer is Egypt, just like the Pyramids. Squash has become one of the most important sports in the nation and part of its heritage as well.

Egypt has topped the world rankings in both men’s and women’s squash, breaking records set by Pakistani, British, Australian and Malaysian players. The Egyptian players have overpowered and outclassed their opponents to win almost every world and international squash event, clinching the titles in the men’s and women’s events on all levels, youth, juniors and seniors, and in singles and teams as well.

A superpower in squash
Although squash has been played since the 1930s, it was Barada who took the game to another level

The world squash charts have seen a minimum of five or even more players among the world’s top ten coming from Egypt over recent years, making this success a veritable tradition. The published list of nationally ranked Egyptian squash players from September has five players among the men’s top 10 world ranking, with the top four all also being Egyptians. Players Ali Farag, Mohamed Al-Shorbagi, Tarek Moemen and Karim Abdel-Gawad make up the list from one to four, and Mohamed Abul-Ghar is in the seventh place.

In the women’s game, Raneem Al-Welili maintains the top spot followed by former world champion Nour Al-Sherbini in the second place, while Nouran Gohar and Nour Al-Tayeb are in fourth and fifth positions.
These accomplishments have been marveled at by the international media, especially the British, since it was the British who first introduced the sport to Egypt during the occupation. Egypt’s incredible success in the sport has brought huge international admiration to Egyptian players, encouraging many to dig deeply into the reasons behind this success and discover if there is some secret formula behind this sporting phenomenon.

The BBC last year attempted to figure out why Egyptians were so good at squash, for example, mentioning in a report that it was in the 1990s that Egyptian players were launched to squash stardom. However, there have been Egyptian players at the forefront of the sport since the 1930s, with Abdel-Fattah Amr Bey winning the British Open men’s title six consecutive times between 1933 and 1938, for example.

A PASSION FOR SQUASH

In a report produced in 2018, the BBC attributed the Egyptian lead in the sport since the 1990s to several factors, considering former president Hosni Mubarak to be one of them as he was a keen squash player himself.

The present writer witnessed this interest of the former head of state in squash and the increase in government funding and nurturing of the sport that it led to. Players were encouraged to attend international high-level competitions, with some of these being organised in Egypt, and this in turn brought huge media interest.

The BBC report said that the rules of Egyptian squash tournaments allowed players to play more matches than in England and the US, giving the Egyptian players the privilege of being more experienced by playing five times more matches than their foreign peers. The unique attacking playing style practiced in Egypt also made Egyptian players faster and ahead of their opponents, it said, being another factor that put Egyptians in the lead.

In 1998, a main focus of attention in the sport emerged when junior player Ahmed Barada won the World Junior Championships at the age of 17. Since then, all eyes have been directed on the sport, and other players have started to follow in Barada’s footsteps, including Omar Al-Borollosi, Rami Ashour, and Amr Shabana, to name a few.

Amir Wagih, Egypt’s national team coach for eight years from 1994 to 2012, confirmed the former president Mubarak had added momentum to the sport from the late 1990s. “He followed our achievements and showed great support for the players and the sport itself,” Wagih said. Ahmed Barada, later the world number two, was the most famous sportsman in the country at that time, and his surfacing, according to player Mohamed Al-Shorbagi, was an influential moment in Egypt’s squash development.
“As young players then, we always had someone to look up to and follow, and it was Barada,” current world number two Al-Shorbagi has said.

However, it wasn’t only the government’s support that has pushed the sport forward in Egypt. There were other reasons as well, according to Assem Khalifa, president of the Egyptian Squash Federation (ESF), and these helped to give Egypt superiority in the sport.

“Heritage and continuity are other reasons for Egyptian squash maintaining its success. Over the past decades, in which I was an official before being president of the federation, we have continued working on the legacy we have built up by always taking from the bottom and nurturing the younger generations, meaning that we always have a second, third, fourth and even a fifth line of young players,” Khalifa said.

“We give all the players in all the age group categories the same attention. It’s like a relay, in which each age group hands on to the following one, so we are never lacking in players. This way we can guarantee preserving the top spots in the world ranking,” he added.

He admitted that squash was an elite sport in Egypt, however. “It is an expensive sport because it requires expensive equipment for the players such as the rackets and shoes. For this reason, almost all the players come from Egypt’s two biggest cities of Cairo and Alexandria and from sporting backgrounds, making us a tight-knit community. But we are working with the ministry of sport on making squash more accessible in youth centres, which could be another hub for producing new talents.”

A superpower in squash
Married couple Moemen and Al-Welili

“Having more players increases our community, and we are keen on bringing the generations closer to each other. Meeting with and playing with their role models, like Raneem, Nour, Farag, Al-Shorbagi, and others, have made the younger generations look up to them. This inspires them, and when the seniors train, sometimes they invite the young players to train with them. We also encourage U-19 girls to play against U-17 boys to gain more power, and this inspires the girls as well and makes the sport even more popular,” Khalifa commented.

“Having the chance to train, learn from, and compete against the nation’s top players has had a positive impact on the younger generations. It has paid off and led to even more triumphs on the international level because the young players have gained a lot of experience that was passed on to them from their seniors.

“There have been many champions to look up to as we were growing up, hoping and desiring to be like them,” said men’s current world number one Ali Farag. “Those players were always generous in giving advice or stepping onto the court with us. Most of us are based in either Cairo or Alexandria, so we can play against each other easily. I believe we were lucky we had that chance to keep the momentum going,” he added.

SQUASH FOR THE YOUNG

Nour Al-Tayeb also believes that watching and training with the sport’s legends have shaped her love of the game.
“It has added to my love of the game and made me think that I could be one of the best players myself someday,” she said. “And to have women to look up to as well made it easier to choose to play squash. Pakistan dominated the game 20 years ago, but now it’s Egypt. I hope we can continue this domination for as long as I’m playing at least. For now, I’m very happy about it,” said the world number five, also the wife of the men’s world number one, Farag.

Egypt is not only a factory for producing skillful squash players, but it also contributes to the sport as an organiser as well. The most prestigious Egyptian squash tournaments in the Professional Squash Association World Tour calendar are the CIB Platinum and Gold Men’s and Women’s BlackBall Squash Championships, the El Gouna International, and the Alexandria International tournaments.

 Egypt has produced several world number ones, including Amr Shabana, Karim Darwish, Rami Ashour, Mohamed Al-Shorbagi and Karim Abdel-Gawad, together with Raneem Al-Welili and Nour Al-Sherbini in the women’s game.

Former world champion Darwish told Al-Ahram Weekly that squash in Egypt was like football in Brazil and table-tennis in China. “We can say it is in the genes of the people. We see a country dominating a certain sport, and it is always this country that produces the world champions and Olympic medals as well. In Egypt, it is squash, and the reason we are good at it is because we are talented by nature and it runs in our veins from generation to generation,” he commented.

“The youngsters are as talented as the seniors, who also started at a young age themselves. The main point that makes us always progress is that the younger generations admire the seniors and consider them as role models. The seniors never fail to impress them, and they are always there for them, supporting them, and even sometimes calling them up to train with them,” said Darwish, now director of squash at the Wadi Degla Club.

The 38-year-old, who retired in 2014, said that Egypt had a massive base of 400 young squash players from the age of 11 years old and upwards and that these now train in most of the governorates.

“The media attention nowadays is more than we are used to, as is the support from the government. These things are increasing, and our champions are true celebrities. Ten years ago, we didn’t receive the same attention, not even 10 per cent of what the sport is seeing now, which is a good sign. It’s a leap forward that has taken the sport to become the most popular in the country,” Darwish said.

“What we need now is collaboration between the private sector and the Egyptian Squash Federation for more funding and marketing,” he added.

Squash has also given players overseas privileges, and it is a sport that is not only a tool to achieve their athletic accomplishments, but also one that can pave the way to international higher education. Farag, for example, has had the opportunity to attend Harvard University in the US.

“It’s a passport to the US,” he said. “I was obviously doing well academically, but squash gave me a huge boost to get accepted at Harvard. A lot of people are trying to do the same thing,” he added.

Squash had not only brought the generations together into one community, but it has also expanded it to more families within that community. Recent years have seen the marriages of Omar Al-Borollosi and Salma Shabana, Karim Darwish and Engy Khairallah, Tarek Moemen and Raneem Al-Welili, and Ali Farag and Nour Al-Tayeb — all brought together by Egyptian squash.

*A version of this article appears in print in the 19 September, 2019 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.

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