The 2016/17 season proved something of a watershed for Egypt’s Karim Abdel Gawad. NATHAN CLARKE caught up with the World Champion to get his take on his best year to date
On the fringes of the world’s top ten towards the end of 2015, Gawad was a bit part player at major events – one of the Egyptian contingent who was seen as a solid quarter-final candidate, but who lacked the killer instinct and the discipline to reach the next level.
Fast forward one year and Gawad lays claim to the World No.2 ranking and three of the most significant titles in squash; the 2016 Qatar Classic, the 2017 Tournament of Champions and, the biggest of them all, the 2016 World Championship title.
An incredible haul that marks a meteoric rise for a player whose languid style, on and off court, belies a fierce inner determination to succeed – a determination fuelled by his father.
“I’m very close to my father and at the end of the 2015/16 season he said ‘you’re 25 now, you should be higher in the rankings and winning more events’,” said Gawad.
“So I promised him I’d improve, but winning the World Championships and getting to No.2 were beyond even what I thought. I believe in myself but even that was beyond expectations.”
A supremely talented junior player, Gawad’s talent was never in doubt and his ability to make the game looks effortless drew early comparisons to the legendary Amr Shabana – the Egyptian four-time World Champion.
But it was Gawad’s approach to the game outside of the court that left many to question his top calibre capabilities, with fitness training and professional dedication traits he appeared to be lacking as he climbed up the rankings ladder.
That all changed towards the end of the 2015/16 season.
“Up until May 2016 I was working with a fitness coach from England,” he said.
“I was travelling across every few weeks for analysis and then training on my own at home which I found hard. I was maybe getting a little lazy.
“So I knew I had to change a few things, both on and off court, and become a bit more mature and professional. Around that time my coach Omar Abdel Aziz introduced me to a new fitness coach, Ali Ismail, and I think he’s improved me a lot.
“He’s a very interesting guy and I was the first squash player who started to work with him. He didn’t understand the sport’s movement patterns and unique demands, so we were learning from each other and he’s made a big difference.
“What I do now is very different from what I used to do. I recover a lot faster and we work a lot on avoiding injury which is very important to me and also over the summer break we focusing on being more mature on court.
“I worked hard on improving my basic game but also not rushing it – being patient and not attacking too much.”
Gawad (right) during his World Championship quarter-final clash with Nick Matthew (left)
Going into the World Championship, following an intense summer of training with Ismail and Aziz, Gawad had already fulfilled his promise to his father. A run to the final of the Hong Kong Open in August and victory at the Al Ahram Open in September – in front of the iconic Pyramids at Giza – fuelling his rise into the top 4.
But despite that he was still seen by many as a rank outsider for the biggest title in the sport, with the likes of Ramy Ashour, Mohamed ElShorbagy, Gregory Gaultier and Nick Matthew favourites to lift the coveted title.
And after going 2-0 down to England’s Nathan Lake in round one, Gawad’s chances of a run into the heart of the event looked unlikely – but less than ten days later he stood, with a beaming smile and delighted support team, as World Champion, having profited against an injured Ashour in the title decider.
“Winning Al Ahram was my biggest dream,” said Gawad.
“I worked so hard for that event and put in everything I had to win it – it was an amazing feeling.
“And I think the work I put in for that tournament set me up for everything that came afterwards. But before the Worlds I remember looking on social media and seeing a PSA picture of the six favourites for the tournament – and I was on there. I didn’t really believe that I could win.
“Then I almost lost in the first round and even in the second round I struggled. (Amr) Shabana came over to me after that match and told me that every time he won the title he had started slowly, and he told me to believe in myself.
“His words helped motivate me. I didn’t think about winning, I just wanted to enjoy playing in front of my family and friends and perform as well as I could and that was a great inspiration.”
Gawad takes on Ramy Ashour (right) in the World Championship final
With Shabana’s words and his family’s presence as motivation, Gawad went from strength to strength during the event, following up victory over Lake with wins over Mohamed Abouelghar, Max Lee, Nick Matthew and World No.1 Mohamed ElShorbagy to reach the finale – where Ashour lay in waiting, hoping to clinch his fourth World Championship title.
After losing the first 11-5, Gawad responded to take a thrilling second 11-6, then extended his advantage courtesy of an 11-7 third game win. But, when Ashour conceded through injury at 2-1 in the fourth, Gawad admits the moment was tinged with sadness.
“Everything was going perfectly for me,” he said.
“Ramy played amazing in the first game and I was just determined not to lose 3-0. I pushed myself as hard as I could in the second and by the end of the game I felt like I was controlling the court and dominating the play.
“I felt like I belonged on the court, on that occasion, and I believed I could do it. Then, when he got injured, I didn’t want it – there was no happiness in that moment at all.
“It is never nice to see a player get injured, especially when it is Ramy because we all want to see him playing. I was really sad he retired, because I felt I could beat him.
“But when I look back I know that it wasn’t all just about the final. I had to play six very tough matches to get to that stage and I wouldn’t change anything about that week – the only thing that could make it extra sweeter would have been for the match to finish.”
And what does the World Champion, Qatar Classic champion and Tournament of Champions winner do after collecting one of the sport’s most illustrious titles?
“I eat junk food,” says a laughing Gawad.
“For the weeks leading up to an event you are so focused on training hard and eating healthy that the first thing I want when I finish a big event is some junk food.
“Shake Shack is good in America. At home I will go out with my friends for a big meal. Either way, I just love to eat.”
Following up that victory with a defeat of Mohamed ElShorbagy to collect the Qatar Classic crown, Gawad cemented himself into the category of genuine title threat. It was a reputation he enhanced further as 2017 got underway with a rampaging run to victory at the ToC in New York.
And the ‘Baby-Faced Assassin’ fulfilled a lifelong ambition in May after a runner-up finish at the El Gouna International saw him overtake Gregory Gaultier to become the fifth Egyptian of all time to top the World Rankings.
Gawad surrendered his World No.1 spot to the Frenchman the following month but a strong start to next season could see the 25-year-old usurp Gaultier once more.