Egyptian powerhouse Mohamed ElShorbagy heads into this week’s El Gouna International Squash Open with the goal of retaining his title at the World Series tournament and reclaiming the World No.1 spot he lost to Gregory Gaultier earlier this month.
Squash Player’s Rod Gilmour spoke to the 24-time PSA World Tour title winner about his season so far.
It’s May 2016 and Mohamed ElShorbagy is standing alone in the middle of an expansive function room at a Dubai hotel. The Egyptian was a semi-final casualty at the World Series Finals, but he is staying on in the emirate to be present at the season-ending PSA awards.
For a moment the 26-year-old cuts a lonely figure. It’s ironic given that no one else has come close to him in the men’s player-of-the-year category. And after such a trophy-laden year, he is more than ready for a break in Alexandria after an exhausting nine months, which yielded eight titles and confirmed his world no.1 status over the summer.
But not even ElShorbagy could have foreseen how this season would unfold after winning two of his first four PSA World Tour events. He then entered free fall.
ElShorbagy calls it “a season of firsts”. He had never before lost two first-round matches – in the St George’s Hill Classic in England in December and the Motor City Open in the USA in January – as a direct entrant in such quick succession and he never “thought for a second that I would have the feeling of my brother beating me for the first time”, a scenario which occurred in emotional circumstances at February’s Windy City Open, when Marwan finally prevailed.
ElShorbagy senior had never had someone younger than him overtake him in the World Rankings either, but World Champion Karim Abdel Gawad achieved that feat after ElShorbagy’s semi-final exit during last month’s Allam British Open at the hands of 36-year-old Englishman Nick Matthew.
“It’s like I have to experience everything this season,” smiles Mohamed.
Yet there’s a difference. The answers may still rattle off ElShorbagy’s tongue like one of his loaded forehands, but where two years ago you could perhaps sense tension and uncertainty, there is now considered thought and coherence in his voice.
He says: “The last 28 months since I had the world no.1 spot, I’ve enjoyed every moment of it. It’s an amazing place to be and it has been very tough mentally to stay there.
“You need to stay fit, to find a way to win when you’re not feeling well. You have to find ways to keep going and get through the tough times.”
On the weekend we spoke, in the lead-up to the British Open, the World No.1 in tennis, Britain’s Andy Murray, had just been beaten in the first round of the Indian Wells Masters event. After a period of such dominance, ElShorbagy knows just what the Scot is going through.
The two-time British Open champion says: “The top athletes in each sport are not the best players because they win all their matches by playing their best. No one can do that. No, they are the best athletes because they can find solutions [to problems] on court.
“Their mental strength comes from that and when you get through them, it says a lot about your character.
“There comes a time when the mind goes completely blank. I haven’t had that problem during the last two seasons. This season, though, my mind is not responding like it was. Sometimes you think that taking a break is the solution or sometimes you think you are losing your hunger.”
ElShorbagy, who first reached world no.1 in November 2014, believes other players are raising their standards when they play him.
“There is nothing wrong in admitting that,” he says. “It’s a challenge for me. The longer you stay at the top, the more they study you. The more they do that, the more they find weaknesses. Then you need to find more time to train.
“It’s about whether I can eliminate those weaknesses or stay the player I have been for the last three years. But the bar is raised higher each year and so it’s time to work harder and improve my game.”
So, after exiting to Daryl Selby at St George’s and to Cesar Salazar in Detroit, we come to the Windy City Open in Chicago.
ElShorbagy had seen fast-rising New Zealander Paul Coll come back from 2/0 down to level in the first round. Inside, Elshorbagy was fighting himself. “A lot of people were waiting for the match,” he recalls of the Chicago encounter. “Very few people understood what I had to go through in that fifth game. I celebrated like I’d won the whole tournament. I was very proud.”
ElShorbagy believes that by watching and studying the likes of former World Champions Nick Matthew and Amr Shabana over the last nine years, it has given him the necessary ammunition to deliver the goods when it matters.
“I’ve seen them playing their best and their struggles, how they lost their hunger and how they got it back,” he says. “I didn’t see it on TV, I saw it on tour. I was a kid to them at that time.
“I guess the positive thing is that I have gained a lot of experience out of it. At 26, every athlete goes through a period like I have – and not just once. It’s a challenge I’ve never had to face before and I’m excited how I’m dealing with it.”
ElShorbagy had now found his mojo as he set up a quarter-final against younger brother, Marwan. Both admit now that they knew what the outcome would be – a memorable one which saw Marwan rest his head on his older brother’s shoulders and weep uncontrollably after his shock win.
Marwan ElShorbagy (left) and Mohamed ElShorbagy (right) embrace after their emotional Windy City Open clash
“The way he kept strong until the end was amazing to watch. I was very proud of him,” says Mohamed. “I’ve always said that the only person I’d like to see do better than me on court is my brother.
“There were mixed emotions. He was crying because he knows taking me out probably cost me my ranking. But I told him ‘this is your time, make full use of it and be happy’ – as many people had doubted him.”
He rates his Windy City experience, especially against Coll, as similar to last year’s successful defence of his British Open title.
He recalls: “I was struggling. I was shaking every single night at the British. I was feeling weak and under pressure. I pushed every single day, thinking that nothing was wrong.
“But, as World No.1, these are the kind of things you have to go through and accept. It’s part of being there. And when you do that, you feel like you deserve to be there. I guess that’s what made me strong the last two years. I accepted the struggles and played through them.”
Where some players may find the experience at the top a lonely and trying one, ElShorbagy has his support team in Bristol to fall back on.
He doesn’t need a sports psychologist – “why, do I look mad to you?!” he booms – and relies on Marwan, his ever-present mother, Basma, Hadrian Stiff and, of course, his mentor, Jonah Barrington.
Mohamed says: “We keep talking about how to adapt in different situations and Jonah says we are learning together. It’s funny that he says something like that with the experience he has. It means you learn new things every day.”
Tellingly, ElShorbagy also finds himself in a unique position, one which he feels will hold him in good stead in the next few years.
“Greg [Gaultier] and Nick [Matthew] will hopefully play for a few more years,” says the Egyptian. “I feel like I am in the middle and after they retire, it’s about how to cope with the new generation. It’s exciting thinking about how I’m going to deal with these things.”
It is why he believes his New Year blip will now be the making of him.
“It’s been a very interesting journey and one day I will hopefully be telling my kids about it,” he adds. “Every top athlete has a story to inspire people and I’m trying to live my story, so that I can tell it. Right now I want to keep surviving on tour.”
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