SQUASH OUTSIDE THE BOX: THE MYSTERIES OF THE PYRAMIDS ...Événements 29/10/2019
Our monthly column “Squash outside the box” looks into our sport with a broader view, going beyond the immediacy of the results.
This week, Camille Serme will attempt at thwarting the Egyptian supremacy and becoming world champion in front of the Pyramids of Giza. Why is the country of the Pharaohs so dominant in squash at the moment? We have asked both current World number 1s, Ali Farag and Raneem El Welily, to help us answer this question.
By Jérôme Elhaïk
French version : LE SQUASH AUTREMENT (N°8) : LES MYSTÈRES DES PYRAMIDES ...
Some young French players have been making the headlines in the past few days at the CIB Egyptian Open, and Camille Serme is one of the main contenders for the 2019/20 World Championship title which will awarded at the end of the week. To reach such heights, she may have to beat players from the host country in the quarters, semis and finals. Egypt is the super power that dominates squash at the moment, and facts and figures do not say otherwise: their representatives hold - at least until Friday evening ... - the eight major world titles (men's and women's, individual and team, senior and junior), and since the beginning of the 2017/18 season, they have won 32 of the 35 major events on the PSA World Tour! Who better to ask than the two current World number 1s to try and understand the reasons behind such supremacy? Here is our exclusive interview with Ali Farag and Raneem El Welily.
World numbers 1 Raneem El Welily and Ali Farag are playing in front of the pyramids this week (Photo credits: CIB Egyptian Squash Open)
1 - WHERE IT ALL BEGAN ...
We often hear that Ahmed Barada's triumph at the Pyramids in '98 was a breakthrough for the development of squash in Egypt. Were you in the crowd?
Ali Farag: I was 6 years old at the time. My dad has always been a big squash fan, he used to play for fun himself and my brother was already playing. We went to the Pyramids together, and I remember everything quite vividly, especially the crowd. And even if we didn't go every day, I would watch it on local television, it was quite huge. Yes, I think the tournament at the Pyramids is what ignited everything for Egyptian squash elite. It made us all aspire to play on such a big stage one day, and to become like Ahmed Barada, and then later Amr Shabana, Karim Darwish or Ramy Ashour.
"The tournament at the Pyramids is what ignited everything for Egyptian squash elite." Ali Farag
Eighteen years after Ahmed Barada's landmark win (at the top), Raneem El Welily (in red) won the only women's tournament played in front of the pyramids so far, in 2016 (Photo Credits: PSA World Tour)
Raneem El Welily: I also was at the Pyramids when Ahmed Barada was playing that the tournament. But it wasn't just him, I grew up watching so many Egyptian players overthere. We were from Alexandria, so it was a trip for my brother – who is three years older – and I to go and watch the tournament. I would stand in line for hours and hours to get the signatures of the players, and I especially remember waiting for Peter Nicol's after he won the tournament in '97. Definitely, Ahmed Barada and the vibe that was around him, as well as the atmosphere at the court, were things that as kids we were fascinated by. We dreamt of being in his shoes one day, and actually playing on such a big stage in front of that many people.
2 - YOUTH IS A PRIORITY
During a press conference organized after the victory of the French women's team at the European championship, a journalist asked the players and their coach to explain Egypt's domination. Philippe Signoret mentioned the priority given to youngsters in your country, and the fact that we see many more 4 years old than 40 years old on the courts. Do you agree?
Ali Farag: Yes, a lot of the focus goes to the juniors. In the club I grew up in, we had 7 courts and 5 of them were allocated for the team – which is mostly juniors obviously - and two only for the members. As for today, we have Karim Darwish and his academy at Wadi Degla. There are five branches of the club, so that's about 60 courts for 2500 kids. You can imagine how busy it gets … So yes, we prioritize the youngsters so they can spend as much time as possible on court and fall in love with the game even more.
"We prioritize the youngsters so they can spend as much time as possible on court and fall in love with the game even more." Ali Farag
Raneem El Welily: I also agree with Philippe, but you have to understand that when I was growing up people were not so much into sports in Egypt. They did not have healthy lifestyles or habits such as in the US or in Europe. But it's been changing over the past few years: a lot of the people are starting to go to the gym, whether it is to work out, to do some cross fit or to try different sports. Also in Egypt, it's always been about football and still is. If a group of friends want to hang out and play a sport, they would usually turn to football. Very few people would go and play squash. So yes like Phillipe said, the juniors are always filling up the courts – most of them playing competitively - and not so much the adults. We have very few clubs where amateurs are playing squash just for fun like in other countries.
Hundreds of youngsters regularly compete in junior tournaments in Egypt, such as in the Ardic Junior Open a few months ago (Photo credit: Ardic Junior Open)
Do you think you could have turned to another sport if you hadn't had such access to the courts?
Ali Farag: Yes, I think it played a big factor for me when I was growing up. I remember spending a lot of time around the squash courts, and even after my practice was finished I would sneak in in between games when people were playing, to get some more time on court. If this hadn't been the case, maybe I would have switched to another sport.
Raneem El Welily: I am not sure whether it's still the case nowadays but when I was growing up the Federation was very helpful. They would give us some funding so we could go and play junior tournaments. As I said before we lived in Alexandria, and they would send us coaches from Cairo to train us. A lot of time and efforts were put into building young players, and improving their game. You would think that I had all the court time I needed but I did not. I was in a club where there were 12 courts and very often you wouldn't find an empty court to play on. But I think I had just enough court time and fun with squash, and that actually helped me make the decision to stay within the sport.
Whether it is at junior tournaments or on the PSA World Tour, Egyptian parents seem to be very important in their child's career. How do you envision their role?
Ali Farag: Egyptian parents are very keen, they are always with their kids during practice. They travel with them if needed. Obviously squash is not a very affordable sport, so they are always behind them, whether it is financially, psychologically etc. So yes, parents do play a huge role in Egypt as far as squash is concerned.
"If parents push their kids the right way and in the right direction, it can work out - and it should." Raneem El Welily
Raneem El Welily: I think parents in Egypt are different than anywhere else. As Ali said, they don't just take their kids to the club and leave, they actually stay with them. If I take my example, I would go to school, then go to the club and my mum would pick me up after my first session to take me home so I could have lunch. Then, she would take me back to the club to train again, and then to an after school class that would help me keep up with a few things at school. She would take care of food, transportation and when we travelled to tournaments my mum was my doctor (she laughs). She was everything to me. So yes parents in Egypt play a very big part in our success, but you also have to be aware that in some cases they can be the reason why kids quit squash. Pushing your kids too much can sometimes be harmful. But if you do it the right way and in the right direction, it can work out - and it should. Growing up in Egypt I learned that as a youngster I have to listen to whoever is older than me as they have more experience in life. So I would listen to whatever my coach would tell me. Well maybe not whatever because I was stubborn as a kid, and still am … But I would try to listen to him as much as possible, knowing that he – and other adults - have my best interest at heart. Having respect for the older generation and their point of view in certain topics of life is more about culture that it is education according to me.
For Ali Farag and Raneem El Welily (here with her mother, after winning the US Open in 2018), parents play a key role in the success of Egyptian squash (Photo credit: Raneem El Welily)
3 - STRENGTH IN NUMBERS
There are more professional players training in Egypt than anywhere else. Do you think that's one the main factors behind the domination of your country?
Ali Farag: Yes, I believe the proximity factor – we all live within a 50-mile radius - plays a big role in the success of Egyptian squash. Not only we've played with each other from a very young age, but we also we got the chance to play with the older generations. We saw them day in and day out and aspired to be like them, and I think it makes a big difference.
"The proximity factor plays a big role in the success of Egyptian squash." Ali Farag
Raneem El Welily: It's true that the number of Egyptian players is so big, the competition between us – at different levels and across all the age groups - has helped us develop our games and become better day after day. I think we don't realize how blessed we are with this. We hear stories about Simon Roesner for example, being based in Germany he trains with Raphael Kandra and Nicolas Mueller everyday, and apart from them he has no one else to play with. Besides, when you see the same person every day, or even twice a day, it can be hard to find things to talk about. Whereas in Egypt when you go to a squash club, you are always meeting people that you haven't seen for a while and you can catch up with them. That kind of social environment helps you stay sane if you see what I mean.
Raneem El Welily and Ali Farag (first row, second and third from the left) with their teammates and staff of their club, Wadi Degla (Photo credit: Wadi Degla)
Which players do you practice with on a daily basis?
Ali Farag: On a weekly basis, I play with Tarek Momen, Mohamed Abouelghar, Omar Mosaad, Mazen Hesham, Karim Ali Fathi and Youssef Soliman. There is also Marwan El Shorbagy when he is in Egypt - but he's often in England – plus the juniors obviously. Surely having so many different training partners helps us a lot, and you are confronted to so many game types that it makes you aware of the court a little more.
Raneem El Welily: I play with some of the girls, but not too often to be honest. I mostly train with the junior players - boys under 17 and sometimes under 19, and that's my coach Haitham Effat who organizes these sessions. This calibre of players is very good for us women and they push me to train harder day after day.
In the round of 16 of the CIB Egyptian Open, Ali Farag beat one of his training partners, Mazen Hesham (Photo credit: Steve Cubbins)
Having said that all this, how do you explain that there are very few professional players – if not none – relocating to Egypt in order to benefit from this environment?
Ali Farag: This is actually a very good question, and Nour (author's note: El Tayeb, Ali's wife and world number #3) and I sometimes wonder why non Egyptian players don't come more often to our country to train. I think we have a perfect setup. We get a lot of match play and we have great coaches, maybe the only thing missing is the physiotherapy. But I guess Egypt is a totally different country compared to others, and that the biggest barriers are the culture and the language. Maybe they're sceptical whether they can mix in with the culture. Having said that, there are a few glimpses of people doing it – an Australian family was there and we have an Indian guy who trains at the stadium every day. At the top level, the only example is Sabrina Sobhy who just moved to Egypt, and definitely I would love to see that happening more in the future.
"The culture in Egypt is different than anywhere else, it's not easy to come and live here and feel comfortable with everything." Raneem El Welily
Raneem El Welily: Over the past few years, some players have started to come to Egypt to get as much training as they can, not permanently though. There are some examples from India, the US and Spain, as well as some of the girls from Canada. But as Ali said you have to understand that the culture in Egypt is different than anywhere else. It's not very easy for anyone to come and live here and feel comfortable with everything. I think it could actually become more of a trend in the coming years though, Sabrina Sobhy being the first example - she moved to Egypt three months ago. I think this was an easy decision for her – well not easy but easier that it would have been for someone else – because her father is Egyptian and he knows his way around. Maybe many others will follow. You also need to remember that not all Egyptian players are based in our country, for example Mohamed El Shorbagy as well as Amr Shabana and Ramy Ashour when they were still playing on the tour a few years ago. Maybe that's the reason why some players thought Egypt might not be the best training hub. But as far as I am concerned, I honestly believe there is no other place in the world where I could get such a good training.
4 - A MULTIDIMENSIONAL APPROACH
During the same press conference, Camille Serme said: "In Egypt, their goal is to win the point no matter what, while in France we are taught the tools that should lead you to win the point..." What's your take on this?
Ali Farag: We often have that discussion, but especially compared to the English players and not so much with the French. In Egypt they tell you, ok I want you to hit the ball right there and that's what's going to win you the point - rather than explaining how you need to do it. Obviously, we do spend some time on the technique and all. But it's more about the tactics and what you need to do, and then you go and figure it out yourself. I think that adds a bit of creativity into the mind of Egyptian players, and it makes a big difference.
Raneem El Welily (here against Camille Serme at the PSA World Tour Finals) believes Egyptian squash is no longer based on attack only (Photo credit: Steve Cubbins)
Raneem El Welily: I am not sure what Camille meant exactly. If that's Egyptians players attack more, then yes I believe the Egyptian school of squash depends more on the attacking game. But take Mohamed El Shorbagy for example, he's not exactly the attacking type. He actually has so many different game types and he doesn't usually rely on his attacking game - not that it is not good, because it is … I think in the recent years Egyptian players have had the capabilities to learn and improve their tools so that they can win matches. As far as I am concerned, as I grow older in this sport, I learn more and more each day, together with my coach. We work on so many things day in and day out, he's actually very smart on court. He helps me work on my tools, know how to win points, adjust to different games types etc. It's not just about winning the point for us, it's about so many things. The picture has so many details.
5 - IS EGYPT ALL ALONE?
The PSA recently posted an interview of Jonah Barrington, where he said that Egypt's domination could be a problem in the sense that squash needs a wider representation. Do you feel the same way?
Ali Farag: I've watched the interview and I agree with Jonah Barrington. As much as I am proud that Egyptians are doing so well, it's not good for the sport. You would like it to be more diverse and have more nations doing well. Believe it or not, but even for us it is not a very good thing for a simple reason: obviously people that understand squash and know how hard it is to keep winning appreciate what we are doing. But when you try to attract the attention of people outside the sport and tell them, we have four players in the women's and men's top 5s, they think that Egypt is the only country playing the sport and don't appreciate what we do. So it's good to have more countries, and personally I think Camille Serme is doing great. On the women's side, there is also Amanda Sobhy (USA), Joelle King (New Zealand) and Sarah-Jane Perry (England), and for the men's we have Diego Elias (Peru), Paul Coll (New Zealand) and Simon Roesner (Germany). The French players are also doing well at the moment, especially Grégoire Marche, and Mathieu Castagnet is on his way back. There is also Victor Crouin, whom I am sure will do well after he finished his studies. To sum up, I would love to see more diversity but in the meantime I also want Egyptians to be the best of course ...
Although Egypt is currently dominating squash – and is holding the two World team titles - Ali Farag and Raneem El Welily believe that other nations can challenge this supremacy in the short and medium term future, for example Paul Coll and Malaysian junior girls (Photo Credits: PSA World Tour, Raneem El Welily, Steve Cubbins & WSF)
"It's only natural that once you reach the top of anything, you must come down one day." Raneem El Welily
Raneem El Welily: I can understand the point of view that the sport might not be very interesting on the long run if the Egyptians keep succeeding, but you have to look back at the history of squash. Many years ago it was Pakistan, then Australia, then England and now it's Egypt. The power has shifted in squash over the years. What I am saying is, we may doing very well at the moment but that doesn't mean Egypt will stay at the top forever. It's only natural that once you reach the top of anything, you must come down one day, at least a few steps. Then you have to look back in order to reflect, learn to change things and come back to the top. Yes, Egyptian squash is dominating right now but in a few years – I am not sure how many – it may no longer be the case. So many countries are improving, developing and changing. I am thinking about India, Hong Kong, Malaysia, the US, and even countries in South America and France. You are starting to see juniors who are doing better and better, and this is a sign that the power might shift in the very near future. Keep that in mind, and you will know that Egypt will not keep dominating for a very long time, unfortunately ...
Ali Farag and Raneem El Welily will be featuring in the first part of the quarter finals tonight in front of the pyramids (against Daryl Selby and Nour El Tayeb, respectively). Watch the matches on Eurosport Player from 4:30pm GMT onwards.