Team Presentation: ARE EGYPT UNBEATABLE?

Today we wrap up our presentation of the top 4 seeds, with hot favourites Egypt. Boasting four players in the top 11 – including double World Team Champion Ramy Ashour – they are labelled as unbeatable by many observers despite the absence of Mohamed El Shorbagy. If the young Egyptian players – including Ali Farag – can live up to the pressure and reproduce the level of performance they've displayed on the tour these last few months, they might prove them right.

By Jérôme Elhaïk

Egypt in squash is like Brazil in football.” said Ashrah Hanafi a few years ago (Source: SquashMad). Like the Auriverde before each World Cup, the man who will managing the national team in Marseille will have no other choice but to win. It's an obvious goal, since many observers think they are almost unbeatable this year. And it's hard not to agree when you look at what's been happening since the beginning of the season on the PSA World Tour, where they have left others with very little chance to shine: the final in the six major tournaments (World Series and $100,000) were all-Egyptian affairs! A few days ago in Hong Kong, we even had six of them in the quarter final stage… This utter dominance translates in the world rankings, with 8 Egyptians among the top 13, the main resistance stemming from players well over their thirties - Gaultier, Matthew and Willstrop. Egypt could have lined-up 4 or 5 teams at this year's MWTC, but choices had to be made and a few major figures won't be featuring next week: like in 2013 Mohamed El Shorbagy is not part of the squad (questioned on the matter at the England v Rest of the World match he played in on Friday at St George's Hill, the man in form this season said it was a decision which had been taken "in mutual agreement with the national coach.") Nor are two players who were there when Egypt lost to England four years ago: Tarek Momen, recent runner-up in Qatar and Omar Mosaad, who is almost back to his best after a very complicated last season. The list does not end here: Fares Dessouky, Mohamed Abouelghar, Zahed Mohamed and Mazen Hesham are all names that any country would be happy to have in their roster.

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Mohamed El Shorbagy and Tarek Momen (here during the Qatar Classic final) will not be part of the Egyptian team in Marseille (Photo credit: Qatar Classic)

Egypt have two bad memories to put behind them: their loss in the 2013 final after two titles in a row, as well as the cancellation of the tournament in Cairo two years later. Among the four players who have been called up, Ramy Ashour is the only one with experience in the event, in which he's unbeaten in 14 matches. Constantly hit by injuries in the last few years, the 3-time World Champion has missed a few tournaments this season. Nevertheless, he came back in Hong Kong a few days ago, and his early exit against Leo Au seemed rather due to a lack of match fitness than a physical issue. Ashour will bring his experience to a young group of players: Karim Abdel Gawad (26 years old, world number 2), Ali Farag (25, No.4) and Marwan El Shorbagy (24, No.6) never wore the national team jersey in a senior team event before. If calling Farag was obvious given his current form (he won one trophy and was runner-up at three other major events in 2017-2018), his two fellow countrymen started the season performing below their recent standards. But they are coming back to form at the right time, reaching the semis in Hong Kong.

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Four years ago in Mulhouse, Ramy Ashour's superb win over Nick Matthew was not enough to give the World title to Egypt (Photo credit: SquashSite)

Can the pressure of being huge favourites, as well as their lack of experience in team events be grounds for hope for their opponents? “The other nations might be playing more team events than us.” says Farag (see full interview below). “But considering how close all Egyptians are to each other and the fact that we always coach each other in tournaments, we already have that team spirit. We might be young indeed, but we have a lot of energy.”

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Karim Abdel Gawad (in red) and Ali Farag – here during their Hong Kong semi-final clash – will make their first appearance in the MWTC (Photo credit: SquashSite)

 

ALI FARAG: "WEARING THE EGYPT JERSEY HAS BEEN A HUGE DREAM OF MINE"

Ali Farag, who will celebrate his first cap in Marseille, has had an unusual career: former World Junior Championship runner-up, he then decided to pursue a higher education. Less than three years after his full-time debut on the world tour, he's now number 4 in the world! We had the chance to catch up with the US Open Champion a few days before the start of the 25th MWTC.

Jérôme Elhaïk: With Egypt having so many top players, were you confident that your recent results were going be sufficient to make the team? And what does it mean for you to represent Egypt at the MWTC?

Ali Farag: Well, to be honest, I was not sure until the very end if I were going to be picked 100%, but given my recent results, the Federation board members and our head coach all were saying that I was on the team. Still, I couldn’t wait to hear the confirmed announcement as it’s been a HUGE dream of mine to wear the Egypt jersey in a senior team event. Now that it’s really happening, I actually can’t believe it yet. I am so excited and will give it absolutely everything to try and help the team bring the title back home.

"We might be young, but we have a lot of energy"

J.E.: Egyptian players are not as used to team events as other nations, and it will be the first appearance in the event for three of you. Do you think it can be a factor?

A.F.: The other nations might be playing more team events than us, but considering how close all Egyptians are and the fact that we always coach each other in tournaments, we already have that team spirit and we’ll be ready. We might be young indeed, but we have a lot of energy.

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Ali Farag (in red, here with Ramy Ashour) thinks the camaraderie will make up for the lack of experience in team events (Photo credit: Instagram Ali Farag)

J.E.: Egypt might cross paths with France in the final stages of the competition. As far as you're concerned, you've had your fair share of tough battles against our players …

A.F.: I recall ALL of them vividly. I beat Mathieu Castagnet in El Gouna qualification in 2011, and that was the match that took me into the top 100 for the first time in my career. I also remember losing to him after having six match balls combined in the 4th and 5th games in the 2013 ToC qualification, while I was still studying at Harvard. He was diving all over the place on match balls. Typical Mathieu the warrior! I lost to Gaultier in San Francisco in 2015 after being 10/8 up in the 5th. I had never pushed any of the top guys yet before that match, so it actually gave me the confidence that I could do it. The day before that match, I actually beat Grégoire Marche in the qualifying finals, coming back from 2-1 down.

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Farag has played big matches against all the French players, including Grégory Gaultier (Photo credit: SquashMad)

I also won my first ever PSA Title in Nîmes back in January 2011, so France is actually a lucky charm for me! Before that I’d been to France once in the summer of 2006 for a family vacation, and I absolutely loved it. I went to a French school all the way until 2nd preparatory, so I’ve always loved France. They are actually my favorite soccer team.

J.E.: Let's go back to what you and your wife Nour El Tayeb have achieved at the US Open a few weeks ago. Can you walk us through the finals day, when you were both supporting each other and preparing for your own match?

A.F.: We approached the finals day like any other day really. We knew we were the lower seeds, nothing to lose, and we both knew that we’d been playing well recently so why not just go on there and enjoy it. We woke up, went for a light hit in the morning, then SquashTV prematch interview, then back to the hotel for a good meal then a 45 minute nap, then went to the court right before Nour’s match. People might think that’s it’s a disadvantage when Nour plays right before me, and I understand why. But it can also be a great advantage.

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Ali Farag and his wife Nour El Tayeb recently wrote sporting history at the US Open (Photo credit: US Open Squash)

Because I am so involved in her match, it takes away the stress of my own match. I don’t start thinking about it until a couple of minutes before I step on court. Also, when she won, it gave me a huge boost. I felt something was written in the clouds that we would both do it together that day. It definitely sank in after ALL of this media buzz that it got. The fact that we’re the first married couple to ever win a sporting major title together on the same day in history grabbed the attention of lots of papers and channels, but I think we both did a great job to put that behind us and focus on the following tournaments as the season is still quite long ahead and we want to keep repeating the same US Open story again and again.

"Nour and I want to keep repeating the same US Open story again and again"

J.E.: France's Victor Crouin - World Junior Championship runner-up like you – is following your footsteps even more since he'll be studying in Harvard from next September. Are you aware that you may have set an example, that it's possible to get a recognized degree and still have a professional squash career after that?

A.F.: I think it’s a great step for squash. It’s setting up a great example for other sports than you can earn a very high degree of education AND then become a professional athlete. Victor is an extremely smart kid from what I heard, and needless to mention how good he is at squash. I have so much faith in the likes of him and Marwan Tarek (current World Junior Champion) to go back to professional squash after they finish their studies and to be on top of the game like they were in juniors.

 

Currently ranked 4 in the world, Ali Farag could never have become a squash professional player. Here is the story behind the story ...

"I never wanted to leave Egypt. While I was in Ecuador playing the World Juniors’ in July 2010, Harvard assistant coach was e-mailing me almost every day to try and recruit me for their squash team. But I was to attached to my family and friends at home and decided to turn down the offer. Six months later, I won the U19 British Junior Open, taking my revenge against Amr Khalifa who had beaten me in Ecuador in the final. Harvard Squash Coach Mike Way was in Sheffield and approached my parents, and once again I said no. Two weeks later, I was playing a tournament in St Louis, and I called my dad, asking him to come to the US to go and give it a try. I was warmly welcomed by the entire team and coaches, and even by the athletic director and head of admissions office who interviewed me. I started accepting the idea of studying abroad a little, but still I would have preferred to stay in Egypt. Two days after I got back home from the Harvard visit, the revolution happened on the 25th of January, 2011. So my dad told me to go and get a good degree. I very graciously got accepted, and it turned out to be the best and most important decision of my life for so many reasons, but mainly because of Mike Way. Since then, he’s been my life and squash mentor alongside my brother Wael.

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Ali Farag says his encounter with Harvard Squash Coach Mike Way (on the right in the picture) has changed his life (Photo credit: www.mtbello.com)

I never thought of going pro when I was young and I thought that juniors would be the end of my career. I had a very traditional way of thinking, get a secure job after graduating to have a good and risk-free standard of living. Against all tides, Mike, my brother and Nour (his wife) challenged this idea and tried to convince me to follow my passion and go pro after I graduate. I started thinking about it but was still not totally convinced. I came back home after I graduated in May 2014, and had to mandatorily serve in the army. Since you can’t work while serving, I thought I might as well give it a go and try the tour that year. It went very well: I jumped from 88 to 22 in the world in the space of one year. But more importantly, I was happy touring the world, with the one person I love and doing the one thing I love the most and have been doing since a very young age. At the end of 2015, I finally decided that this is what I am going to do for a living for the next 10-15 years (if I can in God’s Willing). Since then, I’ve been trying to learn what my fellow players have over the past 10 years. My goal is just to keep improving match after match, and tournament after tournament, until I reach my utmost goal of becoming the world number 1."

 


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