Karim Abdel Gawad (right) during his PSA Men's World Championship final clash with Ramy Ashour (left)
Season Review: Gawad Ready to Take on the World Again
Reigning World Champion Karim Abdel Gawad is getting ready to launch another assault on the World No.1 spot next season after a campaign that saw him develop from a talented, yet inconsistent, also-ran into one of the sport’s biggest names.
The 26-year-old from Giza – known on Tour as the ‘Baby-Faced Assassin’ – had been entrenched in the world’s top 20 for over two and a half years by the time the 2016/17 season began, with his lack of discipline off court and a self-confessed ‘laziness’ when it came to training preventing him from making further inroads into the upper echelons of the sport.
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But things changed in June when – under the tutelage of coach Omar Abdel Aziz and fitness coach Ali Ismail – he redoubled his training efforts and two months later he was walking onto court in Hong Kong for his first ever World Series final.
“When I started my pre-season, I was really worried that I would get stuck in that ranking for a long time and not be able to improve my ranking again,” said Gawad, then ranked at No.8 in the world.
“I talked to my coaches and we worked really hard, I improved a lot of weak points in my fitness and made sure I got stronger. I focused on my fitness more than anything else, I remember I was spending more than two hours each session with Ali every day and sometimes two sessions a day.
“Sometimes when I was really tired and bored he took me to the beach to relax and also to practice.
“When I reached the finals in Hong Kong, I was really surprised with how I was performing and I was really happy that the hard work was paying off.
“I would say Hong Kong was the most important run for me this season because it gave me the confidence to win the major tournaments.”
Gawad ultimately went down to fellow Egyptian Ramy Ashour in the final, but that defeat proved to be a small stumbling block on his path to superstardom.
The next month he became the first man since the legendary Ahmed Barada to win the Al Ahram Open in front of the iconic Great Pyramid of Giza, a victory that launched him into the world’s top five for the first time.
But it was in November where Gawad’s determination and will to succeed really came to the fore after he found himself 2-0 down to England's World No.53 Nathan Lake and on the verge of a shock first round exit from the PSA Men’s World Championship – the sport’s biggest tournament.
Gawad – a five-game specialist – came through to turn the tables and progress to the next round but revealed he was furious after an unsatisfactory start to the tournament.
“After the first match, the dream of winning the tournament became so weak,” Gawad recalled.
“I was playing very bad squash, I couldn’t find my length, I had no tactics and wasn’t thinking right on court.
“I won the match but I was really disappointed and was really mad. [Egypt’s four-time World Champion] Amr Shabana talked to me after the match and he said ‘you’ll play the best tournament of your career now’.
“He added that in all of the World Championships he won, he was about to lose from the first round and ended up winning the tournament. That helped me a lot and it gave me a lot of confidence so I kept improving during the tournament.”
And, true to Shabana’s advice, Gawad did just that, edging past Mohamed Abouelghar in round two before beating Max Lee, Nick Matthew and then-World No.1 Mohamed ElShorbagy to earn a place in his first ever World Championship final – where he faced the man he had lost to in Hong Kong.
After conceding the opening game, Gawad responded with a dazzling display of squash that saw him lead Ashour by two games to one, until a hamstring injury to Ashour saw him retire from the biggest match in the sport.
Gawad admits that the moment was bitter-sweet but recalls his pride of becoming the third Egyptian World Champion of all time after Shabana and Ashour himself.
“I wasn't really happy that Ramy had to retire. When he went off court for the injury break, my coach, Omar, came to me and I told him that I really didn’t want him to retire.
“I wasn’t happy winning like this, I wanted to finish the match. I really felt in control and I was playing one of my best matches ever.
“To hear the referee saying Ramy had retired was really hard for me. I was really really happy but at the same time I was sad for Ramy for getting injured because I know pretty well what he is going through and I was also disappointed for me that I couldn't finish the match and the tournament the way I wanted.
“But in the end, finding myself raising the trophy in front of my home crowd and being the only Egyptian to win the tournament in Egypt is a feeling that I can't ever describe.
“I had been dreaming of it since I was eight years old and it came true at the time when I wasn't expecting it. I know I was playing really well but it was still hard for me to imagine that I could win the World Championship. I was really, really happy.”
That World Championship triumph propelled him to a maiden World Series title at the Qatar Classic later that month, while he made it a third title in a row after capturing the Tournament of Champions crown inside the iconic Grand Central Terminal in New York in January.
All of those wins put him in the reckoning for the World No.1 spot and, after squandering opportunities to top the rankings with surprise defeats to Borja Golan and Abouelghar in the Windy City Open and British Open, respectively, Gawad admits he was feeling the pressure despite his relaxed on-court persona.
“For sure it affected my squash,” he admits.
“I am not the kind of player who puts pressure on himself, I always say to be a good player you need to believe that the result is not in your own hands but to play the best squash is in your hands.
“You will never benefit from putting pressure on yourself, it will only affect your game , so putting the pressure on myself wasn't the right way to handle stuff but it was hard to deal with.
“When I lost my second chance to become World No.1, I was really disappointed but at the same time I learned a lesson. I talked to my coaches and told them that I wouldn’t think about it again and would only think about my squash and the way I perform.”
Gawad finally claimed top spot with a semi-final victory over Fares Dessouky in April’s El Gouna International.
The World No.1 spot has since been reclaimed by France’s Gregory Gaultier, but Gawad is determined to be the man out in front by the end of next season.
“I didn't even realise I became World No.1 after beating Fares in El Gouna, I was shocked hearing it,” he said.
“I didn't open any social media during the tournament, so I focused just on my game.
But celebrating it in front of my home crowd was just the best way to become World No.1.
“Of course, my goals for next season are to defend my World Championship title and to play the World Team Championships and win something for my country.
“I also want to become World No.1 again and win the major tournaments.”