Monday,23 July, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1314, (6 - 12 October 2016)
Monday,23 July, 2018
Issue 1314, (6 - 12 October 2016)

Ahram Weekly

A talk with No 1

In an exclusive, Mohamed Al-Shorbagi tells Abeer Anwar who and what made him the world’s best squash player

Al-Ahram Weekly

Currently the world’s best squash player, Egypt’s Mohamed Al-Shorbagi has come a long way since joining the PSA in 2006 as a 15-year-old schoolboy. The Alexandria-born star rose to prominence when he reached a career-high world ranking of world No 1 in November 2014.

Al-Shorbagi, 25, entered the record books behind only Pakistani legends Jahangir and Jansher Khan, who both topped the charts aged 18, and Ashour who became No 1 aged 22.

Is it easy to be a world champion and defend his title which he has had for 12 months? “There is a great difference between winning a big championship or event and keeping on top as a world champion,” Al-Shorbagi told the Al-Ahram Weekly. “In the former you just need to concentrate for a week and do your best to win the title but to keep on top as a world champion you need to excel for a whole season starting mid-August and ending mid-June. Here is the key and the obstacle and elaborates the role of your coach who prepares you mentally before physically to relax and stay away the tension of the competitions.

“My coach, Jonah Barrington, the legendary squash player, is not only my coach but he is a father. I feel he is giving me all what he has learned. He is always preparing me physiologically more than physically as all of us know how to play but the key is in your mind -- stability and the ability to absorb stress and in this he is very good with me.”

Al-Shorbagi says his family is everything in his life. “I have a lot of friends whose parents are businessmen investing their money in business but my parents are investing every penny in us, me and Marawan because we are their wealth. My mother is my friend, my psychiatrist, my coach and my manager. If you want to be a renowned player, family is the key word.”

And could he break the record of former world champion Jahngir Khan of not losing a match for more than five years? Al-Shorbagi said he thought it could never happen again. “We are talking about two completely different sports. In old times the racquet was wood, the pace of the game was far slower than now and even the scoring system was completely different, so we can never compare. I feel the sport right now is very difficult than before. Jahngir Khan did not lose a match for five and a half years but nowadays there is nothing like that, neither in squash nor any other sport.”

From 1981 to 1986, Khan, considered the greatest player in the history of squash, was unbeaten in competitive play. During that time he won 555 matches consecutively, the longest winning streak by any athlete in top-level professional sports as recorded by the Guinness Book of World Records.

“When you reach No 1 in the world you try to challenge yourself,” Al-Shorbagi said. “I am now doing this. I dreamt of collecting the highest points in the history of the game in the rankings and I did. I am aiming at being the sole Egyptian player to have the title of world champion and I am working on it. I’m behind Amr Shabana, in second place after being third.

Though Al-Shorbagi is the world champion by dint of the number of points he has collected from various events all through the year he has never won the World Championship, and that is what he is aiming for. He won the World Juniors Championship, not the World Seniors Championship.

“As a world champion you face a number of obstacles, mainly that you have to have a complete medical team that is yours. They take care of every part of your body and every muscle. They also work on your mental side as you only have one week off between each big event. That’s why I live in the UK. I wish I could have such medical support here in Egypt but I think it is very difficult right now.”

2007 is when it all began for Al-Shorbagi who became the first player in history to secure a maiden PSA World Tour title at a five star event.

He then entered the record books again soon after, becoming only the second man after his teammate Rami Ashour to win the World Junior Championship twice when he triumphed in 2008 and 2009.

The Egyptian came close to winning the senior World Championship in 2012 after beating James Willstrop in a five-game semi-final thriller but lost out to Ashour in the final.
In 2013 he claimed his first World Series win in the Qatar Classic and exhibited some supreme form throughout the 2014 campaign, winning five events including World Series tournaments at the Hong Kong and US Opens.

The latter in particular was significant because it elevated Al-Shorbagi to world No 1 for the first time in his career, courtesy of his victory over Gregory Gaultier in the semi-final, becoming the fourth youngest player to reach the milestone.

He lost a second World Championship final, against Ashour, during the 2014 tournament in Qatar in what was dubbed one of the greatest squash matches ever.

The Egyptian recovered from his World Championship heartbreak to lift the Tournament of Champions title in January 2015 and, after finishing runner-up at both the Windy City Open and the El-Gouna International, he won the British Open for the first time in his career, beating Gaultier in the final.

Al-Shorbagi lifted the British Grand Prix title in September 2015 before celebrating 12 months at the summit of the world rankings the following month.

After claiming another PSA World Series triumph at the Qatar Classic in November, he dropped out of the World Championship at third round stage after a shock exit to James Willstrop as his search for the sport’s biggest prize continued.

However, a spell-binding run of form from December 2015 to April 2016 saw Al-Shorbagi dominate the PSA World Tour, bringing him up to six successive World Series title wins, including defending his crown at the British Open after ending a four-match winless run against Ashour.

During that period, Al-Shorbagi also broke Ashour’s record for the highest ever world rankings points average in April, a record he then shattered again a month later.

A superb season was rounded off in style when he was crowned the 2016 PSA Men’s Player of the Year.   

Al-Shorbagi’s most recent tournament was the Al-Ahram Squash Open last week by the Giza Pyramids. He said it was a dream for any squash player to play in such a glass court and to be surrounded by the Pyramids. “I used to watch (former Egyptian No 2 in the world) Ahmed Barada playing in this event when I was nine years old and I wished I could participate in it one day, and I did. It was real excitement for me and an honour to see the world’s top players having their optimum dream of playing in this court in front of the Pyramids. I think it is a great achievement for Al-Ahram Establishment to be able to put such an event on the international calendar and to organise it for the next three years.”

On the relationship between his home town of Alexandria and being a world champion, Al-Shorbagi said his previous coach Gamal Awad, who was ranked second in the world, was also from Alexandria “and I felt that I will walk in his footsteps. I was the first player from Alex to win the World Juniors Championship.

“I like to train with the young players in Alex. I feel I have a duty towards them because I have to teach them what I learned.” He added he would like to open a squash academy named after his family “as me and Marawan are world squash players”.

Marawan reached a career-high world ranking of world No 12 in April last year. Next week Mohamed Al-Shorbagi has the US Open, “one of the biggest events and only 10 days after that, the World Championship in Cairo and I hope I will be able to win this time as I will be among my family and colleagues”.

As to his biggest arch rival on court, Al-Shorbagi made it clear it was Willstrop, the Englishman who at one time was the world’s No 1 but has since dropped to 19. “It is like a dream as I keep on telling him that he was already there as one of the top players when I was still a young boy so I can’t believe it that we are both competing for first and second place all the time. But this does not contradict with the idea that when we enter the court we both fight each other aggressively. We have played each other more than 16 times. The first nine times I lost and in the last seven I won six.”

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