Squash champion Raneem El-Weleily, 26, became the first Egyptian female athlete to become world’s number one in any sport after claiming the top spot of the WISPA ranking in September.
Ahram Online spoke to her by email.
After more than a decade of professional squash you are now on top of the world of squash, dethroning living legend Nicol David. What is the secret behind your recent success?
Since I was 12, I have always dreamt of becoming the world’s number one one day. I won the world juniors title at 16 and was number one at that level but I must say it is nothing compared to how difficult it is to reach the number one spot at the senior level.
With a legend like Nicol David [of Malaysia] dominating that spot for nine years you must understand that I grew up looking up at her and now I am competing against her.
She'd go an entire season losing one match, or sometimes none. I went from losing first round matches to making it into semis then finals, but I kept on losing to David so many times.
Sometimes it seemed to me that achieving my goal while she was still around was almost impossible.
But I'm very happy to say that over the past year or two I managed to beat Nicol more than once, in fact not only me but many players did so. This helped me a lot to become the number one, next to me winning three titles this year.
Do you think the time of David has passed?
The era of Nicol David is not over and never will be. What she has achieved so far is something that will live forever and knowing her, I know she will fight like she never has before.
Yes, I am ahead of her in the ranking now, but that could only last one month depending on how we will do this season. Every tournament will affect the ranking. So at this point I'm just focusing on next month.
What’s next for you?
I just got back from China where I won the title beating Nouran Gohar, my fellow Egyptian teammate, who's had a terrific tournament taking both out Nicol David and Camille Serme, the world number three.
But next I will be heading to the US in October for two tournaments there, the Carol Weymuller in New York to be followed by the US Open which starts on the 10th in Philadelphia. I lost the world title last year but I will try very hard now until I win it, God willing.
You lost the 2014 title in a dramatic way after losing four match points. Looking back at it, why do you think it happened?
I wasn’t mentally ready for that moment yet; it was my first final and I pressured myself a lot. When playing against a legend like Nicol, who has years of experience, you can never hesitate or stop for a second and that day I did, I stopped. But I learned so much from this defeat, and I still am learning from it.
What is the edge that put you on top of the world? What is your formula of success?
Squash is not about one thing, it is about so many details that make the difference. I’m blessed with a little bit of talent and physical strength. Talent alone is never enough, It’s hard work and focus on all three aspects of the game, techniques/tactics, physical fitness and mental strength. Master all three aspects and you get the perfect combination.
It is not as easy as it sounds. Usually I train six days a week; twice a day with session varying from physical fitness, to one-on-one training with my coaches, practice matches with fellow players and solo sessions.
What’s the reason behind the surge in the performance of Egyptian female squash players in recent years?
It is a mixture of preparation and ambition. Preparation is always important, but I grew up looking up to players like Amr Shabana, Karim Darwish and Ramy Ashour who reached the top, and it did motivate me a lot. I told myself if they can then I can too.
Egypt had former champions like Rasha Hegazy and May Hegazy who shined in the early 1990s but they didn’t pursue their dreams. Do you think the mentality has changed?
Definitely, I like to think that it changed for the better. Of course, I was blessed with a family that gave me freedom of choice, and to have put me on such a path and supported me to get there, all the way to the end.
It is only in Egypt that some people think that a sport can never be your career, but I’m glad to be one of many talented Egyptian athletes that fight everyday to prove otherwise.
Do you find it hard to get financial endorsement?
As an individual sports player in Egypt it is always hard to find a sponsor, because for starters football always comes first, then comes all the team sports and at the end come the individual sports.
So yes sponsors are very difficult in Egypt. However, thankfully I managed to get sponsored by Abu Qir Petroleum Company here in Egypt and Harrow Sports Racquet Company based in the States, who have been supporting me for over 10 years now.
What about your club, and have you considered moving abroad?
I've been playing for Wadi Degla for two years now and I have to say that Wadi Degla is by far the most professional sports club in Egypt.
In squash they are the best and provided me with the needed support technically and financially. I train with a great coaching staff under the supervision of Karim Darwish, former world champion and now sports director. Squash is having a very big moment in Egypt and it is the best place to train now.
The interview has been lightly edited for clarity.
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