Thursday,19 July, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1264, (1 - 7 October 2015)
Thursday,19 July, 2018
Issue 1264, (1 - 7 October 2015)

Ahram Weekly

Born to squash

For the first time in history, the world’s two best male and female squash players are Egyptian. Ghada Abdel-Kader got the chance to interview the dynamic duo 

Mohamed Al-Shorbagui
Mohamed Al-Shorbagui
Al-Ahram Weekly

Egypt must now surely be the best squash country in the world, now that the two best players in the world, one from each sex, is Egyptian.

Egyptian queen Raneem Al-Welili deposed the Malaysian superstar Nicol David to become the new world No 1 by topping the September 2015 PSA (Professional Squash Association) women’s world rankings.

It was a big shock for David’s unprecedented nine-year run. She was the uninterrupted world No 1 for 109 months starting in August 2006. At the same time, Egyptian king Mohamed Al-Shorbagui, 23, dethroned 31-year-old Frenchman Gregory Gaultier to become the world No 1 in November 2014, according to the PSA men’s world rankings. Al-Shorbagui has been world No 1 for 11 consecutive months. Al-Shorbagui expressed his happiness, not all for him but for his female counterpart. “I have known Raneem for years now. I am really happy for her to get to world number one and become the first Egyptian female athlete in any sport in Egypt to hold that position. I am proud to be part of that and I think Raneem’s story is an inspiring one for women athletes in Egypt. I really hope she holds on to that position for as long as she can.”

Al-Welili, 26, had beaten David, 32, several times before. This year, she beat her once at the Windy City Open in Chicago in March. “David is a difficult rival in court. She is so fast, has a high level of physical fitness, commitment, discipline, strength, and a high capability of endurance and tolerance despite the difference in age. She has a relentless level of fitness and solid performances.

“This season, I succeeded to reach seven finals in seven championships. I hope to continue at the same level. My loss in the British Open championship last May really affected my psychological state. But I recaptured my self-confidence by winning the Alexandria International Open,” said Al-Welili.

Becoming No 1 in the world was Al-Welili’s dream since she was a child. Her dream has now come true. What’s next? “I hope to stay world No 1 for as long as possible. The most important and hardest thing for me is to keep it more than to get it.”

Al-Welili wants one another dream. “I was defeated several times in the Women’s World Open Championship. I have tried many times before but I didn’t succeed. One of my dreams is to win the individual title once or several times.” This year, the championship will take place in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, from 11-18 December.

Minister of Youth and Sports Khaled Abdel-Aziz honoured Al-Welili on Monday 14 September at the headquarters of the ministry for her unprecedented achievement. “For the first time ever in Egyptian history we have an Egyptian female athlete at the pinnacle of the world rankings. This has not happened not only in squash but in any other sport in Egypt,” Abdel-Aziz said.

“I relay to you the appreciation of the political leadership. You have truly honored Egyptian sports and Egyptian youth,” Abdel-Aziz said while presenting Al-Welili LE200,000 as a reward from the ministry.

Egyptian players are now dominant in squash in all categories: men, women, seniors and juniors, on the national and international levels. In the current women’s squash world standings, four Egyptian female players are in the top 10: Al-Welili, Omneya Abdel-Qawi at No 6, Nour Al-Sherbini No 7 and Nour Al-Tayeb No 8. Inside the top 20 are Gohar at No 13 and Salma Ibrahim No 20.
In the men’s, again four Egyptians are among the top 10: Al-Shorbagui, Rami Ashour No 5, Omar Mossad No 6, and Tarek  Mo’men, world No 10.

Al-Shorbagui explained why Egypt has become so dominant in squash. “I think because we always had someone to look up to. We had Abdel-Fattah Abou Taleb, then Gamal Awad, Ahmed Barada and the maestro Amr Shabana.

“I remember when I used to go to Cairo to train as a junior. I used to see stars like Shabana and Karim Darwish training and wanted to be like them.”

In order to maintain the same level, Al-Welili said the most important thing is to have successive new generations of squash players non-stop with no blanks in the middle. “The old generation passes off the mission to the young generation to go in the same direction and continue what the old generation has already achieved. As players it is a big responsibility put on our shoulders to remain on the top and preserve the same level in Egypt. This goes side by side with close attention from the government, the Egyptian Squash Federation and the mass media. These will have positive effects on the coming generation.”

Al-Shorbagui did, however, express concerns about the future of squash in Egypt. “I think we need to make sure that the good coaches in Egypt are still around. In the last few years, we lost coaches like Amir Wagih and Hesham Al-Attar who went to the US to coach. I feel my country lost two of their best coaches. They had a big influence on a lot of our Egyptian generations.”

 Al-Welili said squash powers like the US and Britain started to tempt Egyptian players with offers, scholarships in their schools and universities, acquiring citizenship to play under the name of their universities’ teams and the idea of naturalisation and dual citizenship. “The problem is not naturalisation or dual citizenship. The concept itself of travelling abroad either as a player or a coach is the real problem. It’s the idea of presenting offers to Egyptian talents to resume their study or education abroad because the educational level is much better there.

“Egypt has big name and history in the world of squash. Britain has a history in squash too but British players don’t have the talent, skills and history that we have. American players have started to show up on the map due to the youngsters who travelled abroad to continue their studies there. This has a very positive impact on their players. This is annoying and bothers all of us.”

Al-Shorbagui said he found it hard to believe that there are countries offering citizenships to squash players. “A country like the US does offer a lot of scholarships and in big colleges too, and I was one of those athletes who got a place there. On the contrary, going to the US to study means you are putting an end to your career as a squash player, especially if you want to compete at a high level on the men’s tour. Squash was always been a priority for me.”

“Until now I have not received any offers. I wish I never get any. If I receive any offer I won’t accept it,” added Al-Welili.

“I am happy living in Egypt. My residence and my squash training are in Egypt. Egypt is the best country in the world in squash.”

On American squash player Amanda Sobhi, who was born in the US, has an Egyptian father who has lived for many years in the US, and an American mother, Al-Welili said, “Sobhi is 100 per cent American. She has Egyptian origin but she can’t speak Arabic!”

Al-Shorbagui has a different point of view on accepting scholarships “I am one of those people and in fact one of the first ones who was offered a scholarship in Millfield School in the UK when I was 15. My life has been based in Bristol since then but I have my team here. This didn’t change the fact that I am an Egyptian player. I play for Egypt and represent my country in each tournament I play in but as an individual athlete. You choose the right place to train.”

Assistant Minister of Youth and Sports Ashraf Sobhi told Al-Ahram Weekly: “As a professor of sports management I presented my observations to the Ministry of Youth and Sports -- how to lead and remain at the top level in squash. We have two younger generations who started to have big names in squash.”  

Sobhi added, “According to, my calculations, in four years you won’t find any squash player here. They might have all gone abroad. So I asked the Egyptian Squash Federation unofficially to start conducting a study for the reasons, and how the Ministry of Youth and Sports could help. Also, the ESF will have to present a long-term plan of five to 10 years. We also have to have full assistance from society. On the educational level, we need cooperation from the educational private sector in Egypt as well as government support.”

Squash is not an Olympic sport yet. About his expectations for whether squash will be included in Tokyo’s 2020 Olympics, Al-Shorbagui said, “Well, I really hope we do get a chance to be in Tokyo as I will be 29 by that time and that’s when normally squash players peak at that stage of their career, so it would just be great to have that chance one day and compete in the Olympics.”

About her favourite Egyptian squash player, Al-Welili smiled. “It’s a difficult question. Throughout the past years, there have been two players, Engi Kheirallah and Omneya Abdel-Qawi. They had a big influence in my life since I was young.”

She added, “The generation that I grew up with and first competed with in Alexandria Sporting Club were Hend Trabelsi, Sara Badr, Shahenda Osama and Nihal Yehia. They helped us to improve as we became discovered. Also, there are three players I always travel with -- Abdel-Qawi, Nour Al-Tayeb and Nour Al-Sherbini. Their encouragement and support make a big difference for me. We always take care of each other.”

“All my family members, starting from my grandfather and grandmother, to my cousins, I thank them for their big support.” She believes that family is important because they form your personality. “No one succeeds alone.”  She paid special attribute her father, mother and brother. “They are three important persons in my life. They really made a big difference. They always give me motivation, support and guidance. It’s not only the money they spend on me but they really affect me personally,” said she.

 Al-Welili is married to the Egyptian PSA star squash player Tarek Mo’men. On how she manages her time between her personal life and squash, she added, “My husband is really understanding. No one likes to be negligent. My time has become too limited so I must give importance to priorities.”

Al-Welili was living in Alexandria and trained at Alexandrian Sporting Club. She has been in Wadi Degla Sporting Club in Cairo for the past three years.

Al-Welili’s daily routine involves two hours of fitness training in the morning, two hours of training twice a day, seven days a week.

After every tournament she takes three or four days off. “I took my big vacation in the early month of June till the end of September because it was the end of the season,” said Al-Welili.

Al-Welili has a very busy upcoming schedule -- the US Open in Philadelphia from 8-17 October, Qatar Classic in Doha from 29 October to 6 November, Cathay Pacific Sun Hung Kai Financial Hong Kong Open in China from 29 November to 6 December, and the Women’s World Championship in Malaysia from 11-18 December.

“Each championship will make me able to continue in the same ranking. Each single tournament will be as important as the other.”

The world rankings change on the first day of each month. On how the world rankings are calculated, every month, a player competing in the  PSA tournaments earn ranking points according to how far he or she get in the draw. The points depend on the prize money and the draw size. The monthly rankings are used in selecting entries to tournaments and in determining the seeds. The total number of points a player accumulates in a year (52 weeks) are divided by the number of tournaments he or she played (minimum of eight tournaments in 52 weeks) to give an average score in the end.

 Al-Welili has become a real idol for many young Egyptian females who want to play squash. But she had a word of advice and caution: “Squash is not an easy sport. It is full of many details. You have to be multi-focussed, concentrating on many aspects at the same time. You have to exert effort in all aspects to achieve good results. Don’t be sad or angry when you lose a tournament. The disappointment of defeat teaches you to be better.”

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