Peter Nicol, crowned World Champion in 1999, tells Richard Eaton, writing for Squash Player, about the unique pressures that will face the host nation's players in Cairo over the next two weeks.
Peter Nicol may know better than anyone how Mohamed ElShorbagy will be feeling as the favourite for the 2016 PSA Men’s World Championship tries to become the first Egyptian to win a world title on home soil this month in Cairo.
It was Nicol who exerted some of the pressure experienced by the first Egyptian in a World Open final, Ahmed Barada, who faced him before a noisily patriotic crowd at their 1999 showdown at Giza, 25 miles away.
Peter Nicol in action
“I knew what was about to happen. I’d worked very hard to get to that point and was ready. I knew I would win.”
Barada had little chance to do himself justice and a similar challenge may face ElShorbagy – or Ramy Ashour, Omar Mosaad, Ali Farag, Karim Abdel Gawad or any Egyptian who reaches the 2016 final. Whoever that is, he will need to stay self-possessed before a packed house and in a mighty urban ambience in the Egyptian capital.
Barada didn’t face that. Instead, he became responsible for maintaining a nation’s pride in front of its most famous wonder, the pyramids of Giza. The effect on him and upon Nicol was utterly different.
“I just stared at the pyramids and they dissipated any tension or fear,” Nicol recalls. “They had been there for 4,000 years. I thought what am I worrying about?”
A comparable solution is now required. To capture his first world title, ElShorbagy must remain inside his mental bubble, Nicol stresses. If he can’t, the pressure he faces may be greater than Barada’s – for ElShorbagy is top seed, whilst Barada was only the popular favourite.
It is a relief, therefore, that this likeable 25-year-old seems to have been developing a steelier mindset, not only during his El Gouna heroics, but while retaining the British Open title at Hull in March. In the final there he achieved his first victory over Ashour in a best-of-five game match.
It seems likely that the heights ElShorbagy needs to scale are higher not only than those that confronted Barada, but the great Amr Shabana too. Though top seed, title holder and the best player, Shabana still lost in the 2006 World Open semis at Giza to a young Gaultier, bravely admitting that the pressure had been too much for him.
Which Egyptians can live with this year’s expectations? “That depends on your personality,” Nicol says.
Mohamed ElShorbagy during his U.S. Open semi-final win over James Willstrop
“Some people can block it out. Sometimes I was able to do that, sometimes it affected me. But doing it in front of a whole nation, that’s different!
“It all depends how comfortable you feel in this situation. Shabana wasn’t comfortable. He was quiet when he was young and let his squash do the talking. I never saw that World Open as really set for him.”
These days Nicol is a founder-director of SquashSkills, a digital enterprise which empowers players to improve, with 4,000 members and tens of thousands of registered users.
It has developed Nicol’s insights into why older players – notably Gaultier, now 33, and Nick Matthew, who is 36 – have still been doing well.
“There has been a march towards more open and aggressive play,” Nicol explained.
“The fundamentals – swing, hitting point, what the racket head does – haven’t changed, but sometimes players are not quite as tactically focussed.
“That’s why older players stay at the top. They play a tactically sounder game and don’t have to be as physically strong if they are closing the court down.
“Younger players come up and get stuck – I think because of tactics. Attacking short is tried a bit too early. There is a lack of understanding of how a rally is formed.”
Nicol points out that Ashour, for all his maverick brilliance, often employs a solid basic game too and ElShorbagy quite evidently does. There is nevertheless a caveat about ElShorbagy’s chances.
Ramy Ashour has beating long-time rival ElShorbagy in both the 2012 & 2014 World Championship finals
“Against a certain level of player he has shown he can get through very quickly by playing at a fast pace,” Nicol says.
“At the same time, with only one style of play, later rounds can become hard physically. He might get through a couple of tricky matches by adapting his style and then be fresher at the end.”
Nicol agrees that Ali Farag, conqueror ElShorbagy at the Al-Ahram Open, might do well again, reasoning: “He’s a lovely squash player. He has bridged the gap between playing a tactical game and the current style very well.”
The 1999 champion believes Gaultier and Matthew should not be counted out either, although he warned: “When you get to the later stages of your career, physically everything has to go for you.
“Greg has done an amazing job. I thought his chance had gone and that he would not manage to do that (become world champion). I am so glad he’s proved me wrong. It’s a phenomenal mental effort.
“For him, the draw is very important. A couple of long matches could make it hard for him, especially against the Egyptians.”
Superficially, Gaultier’s draw seems helpful. He may meet the improving Australian, Ryan Cuskelly, in the third round; then perhaps the younger ElShorbagy brother, Marwan, or Tarek Momen. Both are recent top 10 players, but Gaultier might cope with either.
By contrast, Mohamed ElShorbagy has three men in his quarter – Farag, Englishman James Willstrop and Australian Cameron Pilley – who have beaten him in the last 12 months and he might have to face two of them.
The quarter-finals might also pit Gawad, the Al-Ahram Open champion, against Matthew, three times the world champion, as well as Mosaad, last year’s finalist, against Ashour, another three-time winner.
Could Nicol name a winner? “Can I predict three?” he asked and then chose Mohamed ElShorbagy, Gaultier and – a surprise pick after so many ailments – Ashour.
Could the maverick artist still win? “Yes,” Nicol replied. “You can’t rule him out. I see him occasionally in New York. What is remarkable is how far above everyone else he can be at his best.
“I could play well, but I wasn’t that far ahead of everyone. Shabana was. Jonathon [Power] was, when he was amazing. And Jansher [Khan] and Jahangir [Khan] could play far above everyone else too.
“Ramy has a magical game. He plays in a way most people can’t even contemplate, but I also love the fact that he’s so determined and has a more basic game.”
That was often the Nicol way. It may yet play a role in the destination of the 2016 PSA Men’s World Championship.
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Egypt’s Pressure Point; as it appears in the newest issue of Squash Player