x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 19 February 2018

Egypt plays for nationalism on the squash courts

Egyptians are the best in the world when it comes to the fast-paced game, a major source of pride amid instability and unrest, writes Jahd Khalil.

El Gouna International Squash Open Semi final action between Ramy Ashour, and Gregory Gaultier. Steve Cubbins for The National
El Gouna International Squash Open Semi final action between Ramy Ashour, and Gregory Gaultier. Steve Cubbins for The National

EL GOUNA, Egypt // When it comes to sport, Egyptians do not have much to cheer about on the international stage. Except, that is, for squash, where they are the world’s best.

Half of the current top ten men’s players in the world are Egyptian. At the last two world series events, all of the players to reach the final were from Egypt.

Squash is very much the preserve of Egypt’s wealthy elite, with just a handful of social clubs producing most of the country’s professional players.

But President Abdel Fattah El Sisi’s government has already shown an interest in popularising the game and making it more accessible. The defence ministry is currently overseeing a major renovation of courts that will be open to all members of the public.

In a country where nationalism is at an all-time high, Egypt’s success on the squash courts is likely to inspire a sense of patriotism that could lead to greater institutional support for the sport.

That was the case on Friday when two Egyptians from the men’s world top ten, Ramy Ashour and Mohamed El Shorbagy, met in the final of the El Gouna International Squash Open, in their home country.

In what was a dogged spectacle of tough shots and tougher returns, Ashour went on to win the match.

“Its pretty special for me to be back and to play in my country,” said 27-year-old Ashour before the game at the Abu Tig Marina in the tourist resort of El Gouna. “There’s something genetic about the young squash players here — they know how to pay naturally.”

The final was attended by two ministers, along with Naguib and Sami Sawiris, the Egyptian billionaire brothers.

Khaled Abdel Aziz, the Egyptian minister of youth and sports, said the event highlighted Egypt’s ability to organise sporting events on the international level. However, the World Junior Squash Championships, which were scheduled to take place in Cairo this coming July, were cancelled in March due to security concerns.

Ashour and El Shorbagy, 24, have been celebrated by the squash world ever since they burst onto the junior scene as teenagers. In 2004, Ashour, then aged 16, became the youngest player ever to win the world junior championship title, before going on to become the first to claim the accolade two years running.

This achievement has been matched only by El Shorbagy, who won his second consecutive world junior title in 2009, aged 18.

Ashour and Shorbagy come from a generation that started playing squash largely as a result of Amr Shabana, also known as “The Maestro”. Shabana was one of the first Egyptians to start winning world titles in the early 2000s, inspiring a cascade of interest in the sport.

Since then, Egyptian squash clubs have consistently churned out great young players.

Players from all countries attribute this success to the collaborative nature of Egypt’s squash culture. It’s not unusual, for instance, for the country’s more inexperienced and younger players to go up against men in the world top ten, as well as train with them in the elite clubs of Cairo and Alexandria. While many may get beaten, they learn a lot in the process.

“We always had someone to look at, someone we wanted to be like,” said El Shorbagy. “Its my turn now, the kids are watching me training. Someday I’ll be replaced by another youngster.”

Egyptians are also known for having a specific style of play. It’s aggressive, quick and scrappy. Watching the British Peter Barker play El Shorbagy at El Gouna on April 8 was almost like a culture clash. The day before the match, Barker poked fun at his own “boring” traditional English style, which aims to wear out opponents with a long game and focuses on waiting for the perfect shots.

“Egyptian squash is a bit more attacking and going for shots. At any chance you’ll go for it,” said Mohamed Aboul Ghar, a 21-year-old player.

Some of these shots seem to defy physics. El Shorbagy used one such shot, known as a Mizuki, in his match against Barker. It’s a backhand that changes into a forehand with topspin. The description is as confusing as the effect: it seems as though a tractor beam in the front corner of the court is sucking in the ball.

But the Egyptian game’s lack of physicality can become a problem as the players get older, with many becoming increasingly challenged by their lack of fitness.

“The problem is we don’t get much care when we are young. When I moved to the UK, I understood how to take care of my body and did physio between sessions,” said El Shorbagy. ‘In Egypt nobody really understands until its too late.”

El Shorbagy and Ashour both live and train abroad.

But despite how much Egypt punches above its weight on the squash courts, the sport remains relatively unpopular here. While football games are a common sight throughout Egypt’s cities and villages, it is rare to see young people walking around with squash gear.

The El Gouna tournament, one of this year’s seven world series events that make up the top tier of international squash competition, exemplified the sport’s elite nature in Egypt. If spectators took a five-minute walk in any direction from where the court was erected they would run into a luxury yacht or a restaurant serving Wagyu beef.

But Aboul Ghar believes there is another reason for the sport’s lack of following.

“Squash isn’t as popular as other sports because I think it’s not Olympic yet,” he said. “Every athlete’s dream is to be in the Olympics and we have a good chance for Egypt to win a couple [of] medals.”

Having squash accepted into the Olympics would likely only increase Egypt’s reputation as a squash giant — something that the country seems keen to develop.

“We have four or five players in the [men’s] top 16 but after that we’re really struggling to bring the next generation through,” said Barker of England. “I think that’s because we haven’t blooded the youngsters like the Egyptians do.”

foreign.desk@thenational.ae