Written by RJ Mitchell
Hania El Hammamy has given us a sneak peak into her return to the court after lockdown restrictions in Egypt were lifted last weekend and allowed solo squash to break out in the land of the Pyramids.
The PSA Young Female Player of the Year took her first steps back onto the boards at the Cairo International Stadium last Sunday, with the World No.6 starting to refine her shots and reclaim her touch and feel under the watchful eye of coach Haitham Effat.
In March, the 19-year-old claimed her first PSA Platinum title at the CIB Black Ball Women’s Squash Open, in an epic run to victory that saw El Hammamy defeat four players ranked above her, culminating in an epic five-game victory over World Champion Nour El Sherbini in the final.
“It has been a big week to get back on the court for the first time since the lockdown. I was just so happy to walk on to my favourite court at the Cairo International Stadium, hit the ball, feel it on my strings and hear Haitham’s words of advice from a social distance!” admitted El Hammamy.
“But while I am happy to be back on court and to be practising some technical stuff that Haitham (Effat) has set up for me, it is important not to become to obsessed with training at this stage.
El Hammamy back on court in Cairo
“We have no date for the return of the PSA World Tour and so the last thing you want to do is get totally immersed in training and you have burnt yourself out and we still don’t even have a date for the first tournament back. So, the key is not to stress the body too much right now and just enjoy getting your feel and touch back.
To keep her mind occupied alongside squash, El Hammamy has been fuelling her academic fire, taking in some more college classes, as well as making sure she finds time to relax and switch off as well.
“Over the lockdown I have enrolled in summer classes at college to try and use the time to best advantage while I have also enjoyed time at the North Coast beach, so I have had a nice balance to life.
“But you know now I am back on court and working on a few things with Haitham which we believe will help towards making the improvements I need in my game,” she said.
However, her return to the court was tinged with sadness at the absence of friend and mentor, former World No.1 Raneem El Welily, who announced her retirement during the COVID-19 pandemic enforced suspension of the PSA World Tour.
“I am so sad that Raneem [El Welily] has retired and it has made things very strange. Previously when I go on court at the Cairo International, well Raneem is either on before or after me and when I had my first solo hit last Sunday I was kind of looking around at the end, almost waiting to see her coming on smiling as always.
“You know it just made me so sad that she was not there and that we couldn’t have our usual chat! But I just want to say I owe her so much for the time help and advice she has given me.
El Hammamy (left) against El Welily (right) at the World Championships in Chicago in 2019
“Raneem always made herself available for me and as a young player coming through that was massive but on top of all her help she is just the sweetest person and I really hope we will still see her about at the tournaments with Tarek [Momen].”
To win her maiden Platinum title at the CIB Black Ball Women’s Squash Open, El Hammamy had to do it the hard way, big time, claiming victories over four top-10 opponents all ranked above her in a show of true grit that has served as a warning of what is to come when the PSA World Tour resumes.
“To win the last tournament before the PSA World Tour was suspended at the Black Ball Club in Cairo, in front of my family and friends, was just the best feeling ever and definitely the biggest moment of my career so far.
“I think what made it even more special was the people I had to beat to win it as they were all seeded above me. In round three it was great to beat Camille [Serme] after losing a really tough one in Chicago to her.
“Then I got the better of Amanda [Sobhy] in four hard sets in the last 16 before beating SJ [Perry], who I always find a very tough and tactical opponent in the semis, this was massive and very draining but then I had to face Nour [El Sherbini] in the final!
“To come back from 2-1 down to beat her 13-11 in the fifth, I can’t tell you how happy that made me but what was also massive about winning the Black Ball is that it helped achieve my aims for the season which was to win a Platinum event and also to break into the top eight of the rankings.
“So it was very strange when the suspension was enforced, as I was sad not to be able to kick-on from that win and challenge at all the other major tournaments still too come but at the same time I was very satisfied to achieve my season’s targets and so I will take that.”
El Hammamy is fast gaining a reputation as crowd pleaser for the all-action, high-octane squash that has seen her take part in several of last season’s most exhilarating contests, with several of those coming against the French No.1.
El Hammamy (left) in conversation with coach Haitham Effat
“Looking back, I guess the other highlights for me were my matches with Camille. Our match in Chicago at the Windy City Open was nominated for match of the season and although I lost it, it was just a joy to take part in a match of that intensity with Camille and share that experience in creating a special match. I really hope those that watched it went away and really enjoyed what they had seen.
“Then obviously to beat her in my run to the Black Ball, in what was an unbelievably tough four-setter. It was very satisfying and I think it showed that our games match up well and produce something special when we are against each other. The quarter-final match we had at the Worlds before Christmas was also up there as one of the best matches I have played in.
“Then my match with SJ at the Black Ball Open was also a very satisfying win as she always makes life tough for me. SJ is very good at disrupting your game plan and if you don’t stick to it, then tactically she can really break you up, but all of these matches are learning matches for me and providing experiences that will help take my game to the next level.”
But while she was also delighted to land the PSA Young Female Player of the Season award, El Hammamy has served notice to the rest of the tour that when the action goes live the world will not be enough:
“It was very nice to get the PSA Young Female Player of the Year award and especially because I had lost out twice before. I hope that shows how much I have improved over the last year and that all the hard work with Haitham is paying off.
“I am really looking forward to the PSA sharing a resumption date for the world tour when it is safe to restart it, but at the same time I know I have a process to go through and that only hard work will help me get through that and hit my targets.
“But I know there are still many improvements in my game to make if I am to make it to World No.1 and that is my next big aim.”