Al-Ahram Weekly Online   22 - 28 January 2004
Issue No. 674
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Amr Shabana:

Resolute -- and absolutely ingenious

The triumph of instinct

Profile by Mohamed El-Sayed
Amr Shabana

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Shabana dives for the ball in the World Championship final game against Lincou; receiving the trophy from Pervez Musharraf
"He belongs tactically to the past -- a young, old-fashioned player. If I were to sum up Shabana in one word it would be flair. He doesn't think on the court, he just has the right instincts. It's wonderful to watch..."

That was how Andrew Shelley, director of the Squash World Open and Team Championships, described Amr Shabana's performance four years ago. The words showed a degree of far sightedness -- weeks ago, following Shabana's victory in the World Squash Championship, held recently in Lahore, the squash player became the talk of the town.

Shabana, seeded ninth, defeated fourth- seeded Frenchman Thierry Lincou, a success that pushed up his rankings. Not only is Shabana the lowest-ranking player ever to win the World Open in its 27-year history, he is also the first Egyptian, Arab or African to do so.

It took two weeks of continual telephone calls to procure an interview with Shabana. When I went to meet him in the Gezira Club -- he was engaged in a brief conversation with one of his fans before the gate -- his face had changed so much since I last saw him four years ago, I did not recognise him for a while. As he accompanied me past the gate I noticed a large banner bearing his name, hung up to mark his unprecedented triumph.

Before embarking on the interview, which took place in near freezing weather by the football pitch, I recalled a statement by the Canadian Jonathon Power, one of the world's best players, following a gruelling world-championship encounter with Shabana. It had taken Powers five difficult sets to win. "If I were to choose a future world champion," he said, "Shabana would be the one. He will pose a constant threat to the top 10 players." Shabana took hold of the trophy four years later. Winning the world's most prestigious squash tournament pushed his ranking to fifth.

Born into a middle-class family, Shabana began frequenting the court in early childhood. In his youth he played all four raquet games -- tennis, badminton, table tennis and squash. But it was squash that captured his imagination. "It's a fast game," the 24-year-old player says. "It appeals to young people in particular because they like to hit the ball so frequently. As you get involved in the game, you also have to make decisions very quickly. That appeals to me too, I guess, because it's part of my character.

"I began playing sports at the age of five. I played football like everyone else in Al-Salmiyya Club, next to our family apartment in Kuwait. Initially I played squash because everyone else in the family was playing it. My mother was a famous player who participated in national tournaments, my father played too, though only as an amateur. My sister was a champion," he says, referring to Salma Shabana, Egypt's woman's squash champion, his one-time coach and current manager. After playing for six years at Al-Salmiyya Club in Kuwait, Shabana joined the Maadi Club.

"At the age of 10, I came back to Egypt," he says. "At that time I won several national junior titles, the under-12, the under-14 and the under-16 national championships. Afterwards I moved to the Gezira Club and then to Al-Ahli at the age of 21."

Shabana was to play in the 1996 British Open -- his international debut.

"I began playing professionally at the age of 15. At 17, I was seeded 22 -- the youngest player ever to have this ranking." His studies at the faculty of mass communications at the 6th of October University presented Shabana with a serious challenge, forcing him to pay less attention to the game. One consequence of this was that his performance deteriorated, which gave rise to suggestions his career in squash had come to an end. Filled with determination, Shabana never gave in, however.

It is no secret that what the player lacks in discipline he more than makes up for in confidence. In fact, confidence is something of an understatement. A cocky contender with enough self-esteem to sustain a football team, his talent is phenomenal. He has one of the most lethal left hands in the history of squash and a wit that puts him on a par with the Pakistani icon Jansher Khan.

Following the initial setback he began training alone, seven hours a day, to restore his fitness and brush up his performance.

His comeback began successfully.

"Along with teammates Ahmed Barada, Omar El-Borollosi and Amir Wagih, I was in the team that won the World Team Championship held in Egypt in 1999." He was also on the Egypt team that came second in the 2002 World Championship in Australia. In the process he demonstrated such a distinctive style that many suggested Shabana's methods on court will change the way squash is played in the future, bringing it back to its earlier, intuitive origins.

"He plays differently, not like us," Rodney Eyles, former world champion, explains. "He is an alien." No one can ever predict Shabana's next move -- or indeed his method, which seems to change from one game to the next. His strongest point is that he always takes a risk -- even at the most critical moment in the game. It is a characteristic rarely encountered.

At 24, Shabana has gained two essential insights. The first is that he is no longer an up-and-coming young man, but already a seasoned player with a career to look after. The second is that, unless he puts in the required training -- the day-in-day-out, week-in-week-out hard work in the gym and on the court -- he would have never broken out of the 15-25 ranking, his lot for most of his career.

"People say to me, 'Amr, you are a good squash player and you are talented.' But that means nothing. In squash there are many talented players who never make it. I've got to change, the way Power did, I thought. Then, two years ago, I felt I had a chance which, if seized properly, and if I had enough luck, would enable me to make a significant achievement."

A year ago Shabana was seeded 37, but at the beginning of the world championship he had risen to 11. As his performance deteriorated, Shabana confirms, many did ask him to give up the game. Yet he confronted the challenge and went on training -- until 2003. That was the turning point in Shabana's career. "In that year I won the Spanish tournament in which the world's best players -- Peter Nicol and Jonathon Power -- played."

Patience and resolve are among the left-handed player's most pronounced characteristics. Shabana insisted on playing in the world championship despite a painful shoulder injury. En route to the final he beat David Palmer, the player who had eliminated him from last year's world championship at the same stage of the tournament. In the quarter-finals he beat the fifth seed, Australian Anthony Ricketts.

"I was about to lose that game in the last round as Ricketts had six match ball chances," he recalls, "before I managed to end the round 17-16 and finally won the game 3-2 in the total."

Having won the hardest two encounters, Shabana felt his dream was coming true. Nevertheless he was suffering from shoulder pains -- so intense they made him think about withdrawing from the tournament. On second thoughts he plucked up his courage and decided to resume his efforts. "I thought about quitting the tournament after being in such pain, but I ended up bearing them to the end -- to achieve that long-awaited honour." In the semi-finals the 24-year-old player met with countryman Karim Darwish, seeded seven. Well acquainted with his teammate, Shabana beat Darwish 3-1 in what was "the easiest game I played in the tournament".

Finally, the final. Nobody could have predicted the sequence of events that brought the 2003 Men's World Open to its conclusion. Playing before 1,500 Pakistani onlookers, Shabana beat France's Thierry Lincou 3-1. "Lincou was seeded four prior to the final," Shabana recounts, "but he was declared the world's No.1 a day before the big day. I was thirsty for the world championship, though. I'd been dreaming of that day for two years. I wanted to establish myself to clear up any doubts about an end to my squash career. At 24 I really had to prove myself finally."

Seventy-three minutes after the game began Shabana was celebrating a stunning 15-14 9-15 15-11 15-7 victory. "I never played such fantastic squash before," he was to say. "And this was the perfect place to play so magically," he said, referring to the long line of Pakistani world champions that have emerged over the last 50 years.

General Pervez Musharraf, the president of the host country, provided Shabana with what he calls the most significant encounter in his life.

"General Musharraf said to me that he was happy that an Egyptian and Muslim won the world championship," he says. "He also told me he had played squash in the past with President Mubarak of Egypt."

Ironically, Shabana is the only player in the sport's top 25 who has no sportswear sponsor.

"During the last championship I had to borrow clothes from my colleagues. I've never had a sponsor like Nike or Adidas. Nor am I ashamed of saying this -- I just mention it as another example of the difficult circumstances I went through in the struggle to win this championship. After winning the championship nobody honoured me," he adds. "I haven't received a single offer to sign a sponsorship contract. All that I have heard is mabrouk, nothing else. Am I supposed to win this championship 10 times before they begin to think it's worth taking care of me?"

A self-financed sportsman, Shabana tends to train alone. When he asked the Egyptian Squash Federation to support him, he says, they did not respond. He likes to ask for something only once, he says, never making the same request a second time.

"I went into a camp last November in Canada with my friend Jonathon Power, at my own expense. When Egyptian Squash Federation officials appeared on television, though, they claimed they'd organised the camp for me in preparation for the world championship in Pakistan."

Concerning his tactical approach, Shabana confesses that he has never depended on his physical fitness, "which is, in fact", he says, "lower than many other players. Instead, I rely on my intelligence. I try to exhaust my opponent through the duration of the game by sending the ball to the far corners of the court -- to sap his energy. And once I have a chance to finish the ball, I never hesitate. I always adopt the offensive approach to put my contender constantly under pressure. This is the only way to play I know, my only method."

Such, indeed, was the case in the world championship final. "I fought back but I used up too much energy," Lincou said after the game. "After a while I couldn't see the ball and I had no energy left -- I don't know why."

Of those who exercised a significant influence on his life, Shabana remembers his coach Sherine Adel, who trained him for four years from the age of 14 till the age of 18, when he began training by himself. "He always gave me small notices about my tactics -- which helped me improve my performance. He always asked me not to let the ball go behind me, for example, or to direct my leg in one or another way during the game. These tips actually made a huge difference in my style. I also gained useful experience from Amir Wagih, who coached me for some time in the national team."

From the age of 18, however, Shabana felt no need for a coach. "From this age on I began to draft my own training programmes, doing my physical fitness exercises and planning for travels and international participation without any help from anybody." He occasionally had to rely on his father's financial support, however. "My father is fortunately working in an oil company. He spent a lot of money on my travels and my training camps."

Shabana has only realised half of his dream -- the second half, becoming the world's No.1 in the team event as well, he hopes to achieve in the future. "I waited for nine years to win the world championship, which I consider an initial step on the way to success. It'll take me another two or three years to become the best in the world of squash. There are some players who only dream of winning this world championship -- once in a lifetime."

Shabana's ambitions know no limits, however. Determined to ratchet up fresh successes, Shabana is due to participate later this month in the Kuwait International Championship, which will bring together the best 16 players in the world. There he will be honoured by the officials of the Al-Salmiyya Club, the institution in which he took the first steps in his career.

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