Conquering the World When it comes to the game of squash, Egypt has no shortage of talented and successful players By Passant Rabie
For most Egyptians, the term “sports” automatically translates into one word — football. Whether we’re kicking one around on the street or huddled around a televised match in a cafe, our obsession with football is evident on any given day. However, another sport may be gaining on the popularity of football following a series of record-breaking world championships, gold medals and first place cups. Even the most dedicated football fan cannot deny the sweeping impact that Egypt’s athletes have had on one of the most vigorous and tactical of sports: squash.
Ever since the game reached Egyptian courts in the 1930s, local players have proven to be a force to be reckoned with on an international level. Since then, the sport has continued to grow, and the level of local competition has risen.
“Squash has a long history in Egypt and right now we are experiencing the golden age for squash here,” says Assem Khalifa, president of the Squash Federation in Egypt. “There is an excellent generation of Egyptian squash players.”
During the past year, the nation’s squash players have broken more ground than any other country, with three professional athletes — Karim Darwish, Amr Shabana and Ramy Ashour — at one point holding the three top spots in the Professional Squash Association (PSA) world rankings. In July, they held three of the four top spots.
Add to that Ashour’s victory at the Senior World Championship in October 2008, which made him the second player ever to win both the junior and senior world titles after squash legend Jansher Khan from Pakistan won the titles in 1986 and 1987.
Female players are also beginning to shine in the sport and the Egyptian women’s team recently took first place at the 16th World Team Squash Championship last December, making them the first female Egyptian team to win first place in an international competition in any sport.
Surrounded by four walls in Fleet Prison in London, England in the 1800s with very little resources, prisoners started bouncing small rubber balls against the walls to alleviate the boredom of their seemingly endless nights. The game quickly spread in the prison, where they began incorporating rackets into the newfound sport. Its popularity grew and soon children in public schools were regularly picking up the game during the nineteenth century.
From then on, the sport began spreading across Britain and the colonies as ‘squash’ because of the way the ball was squashed against the walls after being hit.
When the sport reached Egypt in the 1930s, no one could have predicted the momentum it would gain almost immediately. It took the country very little time to produce one of the first prominent squash champions in the world. Abdel Fatah Amr, known as Amr Bey, dominated the British Open Championship, winning six consecutive times from 1933 to 1938.
Although he never became a professional athlete, Amr Bey became known as the ‘professional amateur,’ since he still beat the best of the professional athletes.
A few years after Amr Bey’s reign over the British Open Championship ended, another Egyptian player, Mahmoud Karim, took up the torch, beginning his four-year domination of the tournament in 1946.
Karim’s reign was only disrupted by the rise of Pakistani squash legend, Hashim Khan, who defeated Karim two consecutive times at the British Open final match which, according to sports commentators at the time, resulted in Karim’s refusal to participate in the championship again. Afterwards, the Egyptian star moved to Canada to become the squash pro at the Montreal Athletic Association. He died there in 1999 at the age of 83.
After Amr Bey and Karim, Egypt lay low on squash courts for more than 30 years. It was, however, only the calm before the storm. A new champion was soon to be born, ready to take on the world even as a youngster.
In the late 1990s, Egyptian squash player Ahmed Barada began his climb up the PSA World Rankings, hitting number 78 when he was just 16 years old. Three years later he cracked the top 20, taking the fourteenth spot and then hitting number two in 1998 at the age of 21.
With four British Junior Open titles under his name, which he won consecutively from 1991 to 1994, and his movie-star good looks, Barada gained a celebrity-like status among Egyptian crowds that some claim was one of the reasons, along with mounting public pressure to win the world championship, behind his sudden retirement in 2001.
According to Mohamed El Sayed A. El Razik, who coached Barada from a 14-year-old beginner until his retirement, Barada’s charisma and series of accomplishments boosted squash’s popularity at the time, bringing it again to the attention of the nation.
Egyptian Champions Today
The list of unbeaten local champions inspired the current generation of squash players who grew up courtside watching their personal idols play and this generation is now dominating squash worldwide.
Gripping his first racket at the young age of five, Ramy Ashour never would have imagined that 16 years later his name would be going down in history as the second person ever to secure both junior and senior world titles.
“It feels great to be the world champion!” proclaimed Ashour on October 20 last year, as he was greeted by his home crowd at the Cairo International Airport upon returning from the championship in Manchester, United Kingdom.
No stranger to making history, at the age of 16 he became the youngest squash player in the world to win the Junior Championship title at the 2004 Men’s World Junior Squash Championship in Islamabad, Pakistan. Two years later, Ashour scored another win at the same competition in New Zealand, becoming the only player in the history of the game to win the Junior World Champion title twice.
“Ashour’s talent is extraordinary, it’s different than any other player,” says El Razik, explaining that the 21-year-old constantly invents new tactics in the game that no one is able to emulate.
To win the 2008 World Squash Championship in Manchester, he had to play against his older teammates Shabana, 29, the defending champion who reached the semi-finals of the championship, and Darwish, 27, who played against Ashour in the final match.
“That could be the worst thing ever, to play against your country-mates,” says Ashour. “I’ve played my whole life and I’ve never felt this kind of pressure before, it was just exceptional.”
With their unprecedented success in the championship, Egypt became the only country to fill all three top positions at a tournament. That same trio took up the top three positions in the PSA World Rankings in December 2008 — Darwish, Shabana and Ashour in that order — making Egypt the first country ever to hold the top three spots. The trio repeated the feat in the March 2009 rankings.
“It’s an amazing accomplishment, especially since the three of us are friends and we always train together,” says Darwish.
In July, Darwish still topped the world ranking, with Ashour ranked number three and Shabana ranked number four.
Khalifa believes that their success is due to personal reasons, as squash is an individual game and every player builds his or her own ranking, and that it is also due to the efforts of the federation.
“The history of these boys is that they were champions from when they were still juniors so the federations nurtured them throughout their careers,” says Khalifa. “They didn’t turn into world champions overnight.”
For Darwish, the journey to the number-one spot was certainly not made overnight — it took about 20 years. After watching his older brother, Walid, a former squash player and Darwish’s proclaimed idol on the court, seven-year-old Darwish was inspired to pick up a racket and take his first swing at the game. Despite trying out several sports such as karate, which he found to be too violent, there was something about squash that hooked Darwish.
“What I like most about playing squash is that I constantly have to be thinking of my next move and all the different tactics involved in executing it,” says Darwish.
His love for the game caused him to sacrifice most of his time and energy to squash.
“Growing up, my whole life was squash,” says Darwish, adding that he only had one day a week for going out with his friends and could not go on any trips with them during the summer.
“Still today, I have no time for anything else but squash, even more than before,” says Darwish, who only gets one free weekend a year between championships.
But, like a true athlete, Darwish says it is all worth it in the end.
“If I wasn’t getting anything in return, then all my sacrifice and hard work would have been going to waste,” he says.
Over the years, Darwish has certainly been reaping the rewards of his hard work by winning several championships, including the Dayton Open in January of 2004 and Swedish Open in February of the same year. Some of his greater accomplishments are being crowned the Junior World Champion in 2000 and winning one of the most prestigious events in squash, the Saudi International, in December last year, which led to his first place world ranking.
“I’m really happy, it’s been my dream ever since I was young to be ranked the world’s number one player and it’s finally come true,” says Darwish.
He is the second Egyptian to hold the number one ranking; his predecessor was Shabana, 30, who was number one in the PSA World Rankings after winning the World Open title in 2005 (he also won it in 2003). Shabana is currently ranked second.
Ladies Lighting it Up
While squash has certainly been a male-dominated game in Egypt so far, a recent win by the Egyptian female squash team shook the playing ground in Egypt and proved that when it comes to squash, Egyptian women have a tight handle on the racket as well.
At the sixteenth World Team Squash Championship, held at the Cairo National Stadium on December 6, the Egyptian female team, Engy Kheirallah, Omneya Abdel Kawy, Raneem El-Walili and Heba Alaa El Torky, secured a first place win, making them the first female team in Egypt to ever win an international championship in any sport.
Previously the title had been won by England seven times and Australia eight times consecutively, making Egypt the only other country with the distinction.
“It’s an amazing feeling to know that you actually made history,” Kheirallah says.
“That is a true accomplishment, lots of people worked really hard to see Egypt’s name on that cup,” says Khalifa, referring in particular to Dr. Samiha Aboul Magd, a former member of the federation and a professor of ophthalmology at Al-Azhar University, who was the first person to push for sending a female squash team to a world championship in 1993.
“When I first suggested the idea of female players participating in world championships, the federation, whose members were all men, was against it,” says Aboul Magd, who adds that the federation believed it would be a waste of funding since women rarely played the sport for the long term.
After four months of deliberations, Aboul Magd was able to sway federation members’ minds on the condition that she only send three players, Salma Shabana, Maha Zein and Mai Hegazi, to the 1993 World Junior Team Championship held in Malaysia.
“That entire time, we were only paying attention to the boys’ team until [Aboul Magd] said that there are both men and women teams competing in squash in other parts of the world, so Egypt should also focus on its women’s team,” says Khalifa.
The team scored a third place win, proving to the federation that Egyptian women were as competitive as their male counterparts.
“Their win proved that they do have the potential to achieve higher rankings and if they were to be properly trained then they could accomplish a lot,” says Aboul Magd.
Aboul Magd, herself a six-time national champion in squash and the first Egyptian woman to play in the British Open in 1980, continued to pursue her dream of seeing a women’s squash team from Egypt take the World Championship title even after she resigned from the federation in 2005 and remains an influential mentor for the players.
“If she hadn’t started this journey, then we wouldn’t have had a first place win today,” says Khalifa.
When this year’s women’s team finally came through with the championship title, Aboul Magd was overcome with joy and a sense of accomplishment.
“I’ve been waiting for that day for 15 years and I had a strong feeling that they would win this year,” says Aboul Magd.
The win was surreal for the women’s team, especially when they were honored by President Hosni Mubarak on December 25, with first-class sports medals.
El Torky, who recently turned 18 years old, laughs as she recalls how her friends teased her about being honored by the president and appearing on television. The youngest of the four and the youngest player participating in the championship, she says she personally needed to prove herself worthy of joining the team by first playing in several championships on the senior level such as the Pakistan Open and the China Open — both of which she won.
“I already couldn’t believe myself, that I was on the women’s team, so I had to see if I actually deserved to be before we took part in a world championship,” says El Torky. She came to the sport at the age of nine, when her dad, a recreational player of the sport, took up squash after being a tennis player for years.
In the July 2009 Women’s International Squash Player’s Association (WISPA) Word Tour rankings, Abdel Kawy was number nine, the highest ranking among the Egyptian team. El Walili was number 19, followed by Kheirallah at 22 and El Torky at 42.
Players to Look up to
With their win, the team hopes to encourage more female players to take part in the game. “My team and I are the first female athletes [in Egypt] to win the world open, so you have a lot of girls looking up to you,” says Kheirallah, who recalls that when she first took up squash professionally, there were only 10 female squash players in Egypt. Now, she says, the number is increasing.
The team all agreed that as women, it is much harder to be professional athletes than it is for men due to society’s view of women and their roles as wives or mothers.
“Female athletes just have a lot more to take into account such as their parents’ rules, their studies and marriage,” says El Walili.
Khalifa agrees, saying that when the first female squash team was being assembled, the federation had to overcome cultural obstacles including the social stigma regarding women traveling abroad without their families.
Another obstacle, adds Khalifa, is the traditional idea that a woman must stay at home and take care of family. Kheirallah, who has been married for a year to fellow squash player Darwish, hopes to be a role model to female athletes who strive to balance their personal lives with their chosen sport.
“It’s not in our culture to accept women playing sports, people think it’s hard to be a wife and an athlete at the same time,” says Kheirallah, “but when you have a role model who does both, then hopefully more girls will be encouraged to take [sports] up professionally.”
One of the most essential elements for making life work as an athlete and a wife, according to Kheirallah, is to have an understanding husband.
“He’s a squash player as well so he understands my tight schedule, but it becomes really hard if your husband doesn’t support you,” says Kheirallah. “I try my best to balance everything. It’s not the perfect scenario, but we find a way to make it work.”
The Next Generation
As male and female players under the age of 19 wrap up the Junior World Championship, held in India from July 29 through August 8, the spotlight begins to shine on the next generation of squash players to represent the country.
For the women’s team, the youngest member and one of the youngest in the championship, 13-year-old Nour El Sherbini, has already broken world records as the youngest WISPA World Tour finalist in the 2009 tournament, where she lost to fellow Egyptian champion Kheirallah after a fifth deciding match. In July, El Sherbini was ranked number 90 on the WISPA World Tour, skyrocketing from number 166 in the June rankings.
The women’s team,led by El Torky, also include her younger sister, 16-year-old Nouran El Torky (WISPA number 69.)
On the men’s team, Mohamed El Shorbagy, 18, is the defending champion and top seed for the world squash juniors. El Shorbagy, currently ranked 17 worldwide, could possibly become the second in the history of the sport to win the title twice.
There is little time to rest, however. El Shorbagy is already qualified for the 2009 African Squash Open Champion in Lagos, Nigeria from August 12–15. Joining him are Darwish, Shabana and 36-ranked Mohamed Ali Anwar Reda.
So Where are the Fans?
With all the trophies displayed on their shelves and medals hanging around their necks, why are squash players not getting their well-earned time in the sports limelight?
While many of them say the popularity of the sport has increased over the years, they still believe that squash followers constitute just a tiny percentage of the population.
“Squash is the most successful game in Egypt, according to how much we’ve accomplished in the game. However, the interest in squash remains low in Egypt,” says Aboul Magd.
El Torky agrees, “The game deserves more attention from the people. In football, for example, we weren’t even in the world championship and Egyptians were still losing their heads over it.”
Kheirallah blames the lack of attention on the fact that the Egyptian media generally ignore the sport, in addition to squash being a difficult game to televise due to the small size and square shape of the courts.
Al Razik says the lack of popularity of the game can be attributed to the fact that there aren’t that many national championships in the country to raise the game’s profile. But even if squash players never see crowds of thousands holding up the Egyptian flag at their tournaments or closing down streets until the early hours of dawn as they chant and dance to celebrate their wins, they can still revel in the fact that when it comes to their game, Egyptian squash players are the superstars