By RJ Mitchell
Ali Farag has revealed that his World Championships title ‘three-peat’ is still taking time to sink in.
The 30-year-old claimed his third PSA World Championship after a thrilling 3-2 victory over his greatest rival Mohamed ElShorbagy last Sunday in Cairo and has now joined such court immortals as Ramy Ashour and Nick Matthew as a triple global ruler.
The newly crowned World Champion will face an immediate test of his enhanced status when he takes to the court at the El Gouna International on Saturday and has admitted that coming to terms with his successful World title defence and then recharging his batteries to go again inside six days has been a real challenge this week.
Yet Farag can take great pride from the way he has bounced back from the bitter disappointment of his British Open final defeat at the hands of Paul Coll to confound those that felt the Kiwi was a certainty to triumph in Cairo.
In particular his subduing of Mostafa Asal in an epic five-game semi-final and the way the World No.2 managed a tactical tinker that turned the momentum around against ElShorbagy in the fourth stanza of the final before he ultimately broke ‘The Beast’ in the fifth game deserve highlighting.
Looking back before he heads to El Gouna, the World Champion said: “Right after the match I wasn’t sure what I was feeling whether it was joy or relief, but I just didn’t feel as happy as I wanted to be while on Monday it was just a very busy time replying to everyone and other stuff I had to deal with from before the tournament.
“Then on Tuesday I woke up extremely happy and at last it had finally sunk in! I had always said I didn’t think it would have made much of a difference if I had won one or won five World titles, but now having won three I am in the same conversation as Ramy Ashour and Nick Matthew and that means a lot.
“I could only have dreamt of getting on court with them and now I am being compared with them and it has just started to sink in. It feels unreal in a way and I can hardly believe it but now it definitely means an awful lot more than I thought it would.
“In every one of my last four matches at the Worlds I was on the way to the venue and I’m saying to Nour [El Tayeb] this is a 50/50 match. Youssef Ibrahim, well I know how dangerous he is, we saw that in Chicago! I train with him a lot and I lose to him a lot in training and I really get how dangerous he can be.
Ali Farag with Nour El Tayeb and daughter, Farida
“So, when I played well that day it gave me a lot of confidence for the rest of the tournament and then against Marwan [ElShorbagy] well you know how my head-to-head record is. He always makes me edgy with his brand of squash and it is never easy to play against him, so to get through in three games was a big, big relief.
“Then with Mostafa [Asal] in the semi he is an outstanding squash player, very explosive and very attacking with very good body positioning and then all of the things you have to deal with around squash as well, that doesn’t make it any easier.
“Mohamed in the final. Well believe it or not I woke up on the day and I said to Nour: ‘I don’t believe that I have the final of the World Champs today.’ I didn’t know why, but now I reckon that is because every time I play Mohamed I always feel like the pressure is on him.
“Even if he had not had the best few months and I am the favourite on paper then Mohamed is still Mohamed and I just always feel like he is favourite, so I just felt less pressure than I thought I would in the final of the World Championships.
“But at 2-1 down in games and 9-9, Mohamed was two points away from clinching the World Champs, and even although I managed to win the fourth and I could feel Mohamed was tiring, I knew it would take a massive effort to prevail in the fifth and I am so happy I managed it.
“I can’t pinpoint one of these four matches as the key one, they were all very important to the journey of winning the title and special to me.”
Farag’s dissection of the 74-minute final is a fascinating reveal and typically candid: “I always try and get on the ball early against Mohamed and try and get into his body and hopefully his head as well, but you know how strong he is mentally!
“So, I was trying to make it physical, but Mohamed was playing at a very controlled pace and on the backhand side especially he would just spin me behind him. He would go short and make me go the long way around and he was playing very smart tactically and I was mostly reacting and I didn’t like that.
“Instead of being patient in a positive way and going to the back corners I went short to the front corners too much and it looked like I was forcing things just too much. I just had to change something up, break his momentum and gain control of that ‘T’ area but playing against the smartest player of my generation and over the last decade, I was always going to have to look reactive at some point and I have no problem with that.
“But what counted the most was that I was able to execute the game plan I wanted to and even if it were later than I would have like to it was better later than never!
“I still need to watch the final back more thoroughly and as Jonah [Barrington] said in his PSA website column it wasn’t a classic but that was because of the occasion and how drained we both were, perhaps more mentally than physically, because of our semi-finals.
“But I will definitely spend time reviewing it properly and I am sure Mohamed will do the same. However, I am proud of what I have achieved in bouncing back after the British Open but again it has to do with the people around me. They have never let me be dishonest about myself. When I lose they tell me very honestly and bluntly what I need to do better.
“It would have been very easy to come out of the British Open and make excuses whatever they may be but then I knew right away after the match when I talked to Nour and then I spoke with Karim (Darwish) and my brother and to Mike (Way) on the phone, well I knew that I had things to improve mentally more than anything.
“I never believed I needed to change drastically but there were little bits and pieces I needed to change mentally and I got there with them the week of the World Champs thankfully.”
As he turned his attention to this weekend’s El Gouna International Farag admitted that the come down from last weekend’s triumph both mentally and physically has posed challenges in terms of his ability to regain peak focus for his next challenge.
“I am not going to lie and say it is easy to go again for Gouna, it is tough. I have to be honest it is not the ideal preparation for any of us and especially the people who have gone deep at the Worlds and it is not just the mental and physical exhaustion of the tournament itself it is also the lead up to the World Champs.
“You have been waiting for something so long and then finally it is there and then it is gone and all the adrenaline levels drain away. The World Champs is the pinnacle of the season, so I think there is more of a drop off and all of us will be drained in some way or another but the good thing is that Paul [Coll] and I are still playing for the World No.1.
“I set myself three goals this season and they were to win the World Championships, win the British Open and finish the season as World No.1. So, I have achieved one and came up short in the other and I definitely want to finish on a high.
“This is going to be a great motivation for the week ahead for both of us, but you can’t get ahead of yourself and both Paul and I have pretty much the same draw as we did for the World Champs and you saw how tough that was for us.
“It is going to be hard and the first match will be so tough in terms of getting yourself in the mood and building your way into the tournament so I need to start sharp from the beginning and build. That will be vital.”