Exclusive by RJ Mitchell
Laura Massaro believes concerns that a failure to land the British Open will leave Raneem El Welily’s retirement tinged with a sense of what might have been are unfounded.
The great Egyptian took many in the game by surprise by bidding a fond adieu to the game she has graced for 18 years as both a world star and emerging stellar junior talent.
El Welily collected so many accolades throughout her garlanded career, including becoming the first Arab woman to reach World No.1 in any sport while in doing so ending the nine year reign of the great Nicol David, the squash immortal many believe is the finest ever woman’s player.
But while there were also 24 PSA titles, the crowning glory of her sole world championship in 2017/18, four world team championships with the all-conquering Egyptian ladies’ team and a staggering 19-month uninterrupted reign as No.1 before Raneem called it a day, there was to be no British Open triumph.
Yet as the women’s game continues to realign in the wake of her departure, Massaro, who beat El Welily in the 2016 World Series Finals, has paid a fitting tribute and says El Welily’s legacy as an all-time great is secure.
“You only really get credit for what you win, not the finals and semi-finals and epic matches you played, and I often think that is a real shame,” said Massaro.
“I made four finals in five years, won two, and in any other sport I might have had two silver medals to show for that but it is difficult for me to comment on Raneem’s career in terms of the British.
Laura Massaro pictured against Raneem El Welily at the U.S. Open
“The British Open just carries extra pressure and when you are World No.1 and top seed that burden is increased. It goes without saying that because of the status of the British Open, for Raneem to have had such a fantastic career and not to win it there will be regret there. But she has achieved so much else in the game and has left such a strong legacy, that is not what she will be remembered for.
“I always think that to win your first British or Worlds title you also need a bit of luck to get over that line for the first time. Maybe the draw opens up unexpectedly for you when a major rival is knocked out early or top seed is injured.
“Looking back that happened for me in 2013, when I won my first World Championship I did get some breaks but in coming through it all you need to hold both your form and your nerve for a whole week and you just can’t underestimate how tough that is.
“But Raneem was one of these huge talents and you could see that as she came through from the juniors and you just knew she was going to be massive on the PSA tour. Clearly, she was World Junior Champion and while that doesn’t always translate to the senior game, she was just that good, it was always likely she would go all the way to the top.
“It’s funny but I have been scanning through some old diaries to help me with my own book and I came across a couple of matches I had early on with Raneem not long after she turned pro over in the US.
“In the first she beat me when unseeded in Cleveland and I was rotten and the second I was really up for it and she beat me in five really tough sets and for me that was a bit of a disaster but it just underlined how good she was and how early she was that good.
“We had some epic matches including two World Championship semi-finals that finished 13-11 in the fifth and I will always treasure my time on court with Raneem. But as well as being a unique talent she was also a lovely person, so while she leaves a great legacy on court she also leaves squash as one of the most popular No.1s there has been and that tells you what a lovely person she was.
“Perhaps after making such an impressive start to her senior career there was an awful lot of pressure on her to fulfil this huge potential and perhaps, she did struggle a bit with this in the middle of her career.
Laura Massaro in action against Raneem El Welily at the Dubai PSA World Series Finals
“But you know she walks away as the World No.1 and one who had been at the top of the PSA rankings for 19 consecutive months and of course she was a World Champion and that is a legacy a lot of squash players would die for.
“So Raneem can be enormously proud with everything she achieved in the game and she did it with a grace and style all of her own. What we are also losing with Raneem’s retirement is the women’s game’s great flair player. Really she was unique and will be badly missed.”
Yet while the former World Champion admits Raneem’s departure from the tour was initially a surprise, scratch the surface a little deeper and the signs indicating the time to hang up her racket had come, were maybe more obvious than initially thought.
Massaro said: “I will be honest and admit I thought Raneem still had a bit more to give to the game, still had more left in her game but from the point of view of her age, the fact she is married to Tarek and just how long she has dedicated her life to squash it is not a surprise.
“Raneem has been at the top for so long and it takes a supreme mental effort to keep getting back up for the game as squash is a very draining sport mentally, especially when you are at No.1.
“When you consider Raneem’s great rivalry with Nour [El Sherbini] and the way they have swapped the top spot, then the challenge she has faced from the other Egyptian girls and of course Camille Serme, then the fact she has dedicated herself to squash since she was a girl, well it’s understandable.
“Possibly the suspension of the tour caused by the COVID-19 Pandemic may have been what made her mind up given we still don’t know when the tour will resume. So, I guess for me it was a surprise but maybe, when you factor everything in, not a surprise.”
While Nouran Gohar has now claimed No.1 status, Massaro admits she is excited to see how the cards will fall when the PSA Tour resumes: “Looking at things with Nouran, you have the power hitting, Camille Serme is just so fit and determined, Sherbini has subtlety and Tayeb has just a very effective style of play and now Hania is the young gun on the way through, supremely determined and hungry.
“So the women’s game is in a great place with all these rivalries and Sarah-Jane Perry is flying the flag in there for England but there is no doubt it would be in even greater shape if Raneem was coming back for the resumption of the tour.”
Laura Massaro against Sarah-Jane Perry at the British Open
“It is a strange thing to go No.1 in lockdown, but what it will have done is give Nouran time to get used to her new status and to get focused on what she needs to do when the tour resumes. So that is a positive and a silver lining for her.”
When it comes to her successor as England No.1, Perry, Massaro is bullish about her former England team-mates chances of major success: “SJ is at a great age. She has accumulated so much big match experiences from major final and semi finals and I genuinely believe she hasn’t hit her peak just yet.
“If she can remain injury free, get in the right half of a draw when it opens up and keep getting to the later stages, I see no reason why she can’t land a major. I know how determined she is to achieve that and how hard she is working with Rob Owen towards it. But the next year after the tour resumes will be important for SJ.”
It is also clear that while she is enjoying her own retirement, Massaro’s talents are being utilised in many splendid ways: “I am doing some consultancy, working with England Academy players and helping them through the suspension and lockdown.
I have been posting online work outs, been talking them through different off court training sessions and work outs and I’m also there for them on the phone when needed.
“I am working with players ranked from the 30s up to 100 or so and it has been fascinating to see how things differ in approach from each individual and also just a really positive experience for me to feel I can help.
“I haven’t been at home as much as this in the last 15 years and I must admit I’m not missing the tour as much as I had thought I would do, but I also have my book to work on so I am keeping very busy.”