Still just 28, Raneem Al-Welili has carved out an inimitable squash identity of her own.
The Egyptian world champion and currently the world’s No 2 ranked female player after compatriot Nour Al-Sherbini, has claimed several titles since turning professional in 2002.
But despite her world ranking, Al-Welili remains modest. “You know squash is an individual sport, but people always forget that players have an entire team behind them who deserve to be holding the trophy just as much as we do,” Al-Welili said in her memorable speech in Manchester when being crowned the world champion.
In an exclusive interview with Al-Ahram Weekly, Al-Welili talks about how she received the highest ranking sports medallion from President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi, playing with other Egyptians, what she hopes to see in squash in Egypt, what Egypt means to her and how to mix marriage with sports.
You recently received the highest medal of honour from the Egyptian president with the squash team. How do you see the medal? And do you think it was late in coming?
This is the second time I receive a medal from an Egyptian president. The first was in 2008 from president Hosni Mubarak. I am honoured and lucky to be awarded. Many champions can be world champions but they never get the chance to receive an award. So I am lucky to receive two awards from two Egyptian presidents.
In the finals of the 2017 Manchester World Champions, you took the title from Nour Al- Sherbini. How was your match with her? And what did you try to change in your play to beat her?
Well, Nour and I played many times against each other. The matches usually run at a very fast pace. Our playing is similar to each other a little bit but this time I was different.
Actually I have been playing 10 years in the World Championship. I have reached the semi-finals four times and reached the finals twice. I was so close to winning several times but I did not get it. I am not the first player who was unlucky to win the final match. So I had a different approach this time. Whether I win or lose, I am playing as good as I should be. I won’t be sad either way. I was much more relaxed this time. I hope I can sustain this relaxation and the calmness in the coming competitions and championships because it really makes a difference.
Do you feel it’s more difficult to beat your Egyptian counterparts than to beat foreigners?
The first 10 players dominating the world rankings in squash are Egyptians .All the semi-final players in the last Saudi Arabian championship were Egyptians. I am close to most of them. This is why apart from being the most powerful players, they are also my friends. Yes, it can be very challenging because we often know pretty well our points of strengths and weaknesses.
What are the biggest titles you have won?
The two best achievements I am really proud of which I can really call life achievements was being the first Egyptian to be world champion No 1 in 2015 and winning the last World Championship in December 2017.
In 2015 you dethroned Nicol David at the top of the world rankings to become the first ever female Egyptian No 1. From that time onwards you claimed many titles. Some sports analysts say these are the prime years of your life. Do you agree and if so, why?
From 2014 until now, I learned so much and I became more mature and more professional. There are many years which I call prime years like 2010, 2012, 2014 and 2016 during which my accomplishments really did count.
You started 2016/17 season strongly and won the Al-Ahram Open title, the first Egyptian woman to do so. How did you find this achievement?
Winning the Al-Ahram Championship in 2016 was one of the happiest moments of my life. I remember when I used to go and watch Egyptian and world champions when I was six years old. I used to watch Ahmed Barada and many other Egyptians who were my role models. The Al-Ahram Championship is one of the main reasons why players even joined squash. It made me realise my dream that I want to be a professional squash player. I am very happy that I was able to participate last year and win the title.
In a televised interview with Egyptian TV anchor Osama Kamal a couple of years ago, you cried when he said ‘Egypt’ and asked you what your country had given you. Can you explain what happened?
Egypt is a very important country. I love my country very much and I was brought up in a household which is always boosting this feeling in my heart and soul. My country gave me many things since a very young age. But it is also true that other countries like Malaysia, the UK and France support their squash players financially and technically much more than Egyptians. Here in Egypt we have limited resources so as players we have to double our effort and we have to compromise. I hope for example that my physician and my trainer would accompany me in every tournament.
What advice do you give young squash players in Egypt and do you feel they are as good as your generation?
There is little doubt that Egypt’s junior performance qualifications are a bit lower than before. I would advise young players to enjoy the sport and not to over stress themselves. They just have to enjoy playing and they will compete excellently.
Some athletes and champions, when they get married, they stop playing or they retire. But actually you are topping the PSA ranking. Can you explain how, even though you have been married three years?
Sometimes when professional female players stop playing, it’s either due to them getting married and changing their lifestyle or they become pregnant and leave squash for over 15 months which is a very long time to get physically fit again. In my case, my husband is No 7 in the world. He is always supporting me and backing me. He is very understanding, too. I hope one day I would give him back half what he gave me.
What would you like to see in squash in the coming years?
I hope squash as a sport will become hugely popular and watched by millions of viewers. I hope players would increase in number and younger ones would join. I hope the private sector would sponsor players and champions more. I hope the media would focus more on individual sports and not just football. We could be role models for younger generations. How many children in Egypt wish to become a squash champion? And how many dream of being a football player?
*This article was first published in Al-Ahram Weekly