Written by RJ Mitchell
Raneem El Welily has admitted that she will watch as a fascinated spectator from her couch when the PSA World Tour resumes and the battle to succeed her as the ladies’ game’s dominant force recommences in earnest.
The Enigma, who retired as World No.1 after 19 consecutive months at the top of the women’s rankings, has no doubt that while Nouran Gohar is a worthy successor to her that the new first lady of squash will face an onslaught of epic proportions from her nearest challengers.
While Gohar may start on top of the mountain, her compatriot and friend is in no doubt that should her persistent knee injury clear up, reigning World Champion Nour El Sherbini could re-emerge at the summit of the game.
El Welily has also advanced strong cases for French World No.3 Camille Serme and former US Open champion Nour El Tayeb while she reckons that if she can add consistency to her game England’s Sarah-Jane Perry has the tactical guile to trap a big game title.
Hania El Hammamy’s epic triumph at the CIB Black Ball Women’s Squash Open in Cairo, which was the last top level ladies tournament before the tour suspension in March, has also left the former World No.1 admitting that the newest major winner could sweep all before her.
Factor in an interesting dark horse selection as an outside bet when squash finally emerges from its COVID-19 imposed sabbatical and the former world champion has no doubt in stating that the ladies’ game will make for compelling viewing in the new season.
“I am really going to enjoy sitting on the couch and watching how everything works out because I am sure there will be so many great battles,” admitted El Welily.
“I have so much respect for Nouran [Gohar] and there is so much friendship there between us that I am delighted she has followed me as World No.1 and I have no doubt that she deserves it so much for all her hard work.
El Welily (right) and Gohar (left) in action in Chicago
“She has a very solid game and when she is in her rhythm and hitting the ball hard and clean it is really hard to break her game down. She is also super strong physically, has a tremendous will to win and all the characteristics of the true champion.
“When we played in the quarter-finals of the British Open in 2019 she just played a fantastic match against me. I know she has said that was the best match of her career, although I think she has had a few of that standard on top of that match, but when she plays that way she is almost unbeatable and displays all the characteristics of a true champion. So, for me, Nouran is a very worthy No.1”.
Raneem continued her analysis of the game’s top-three with her thoughts on the rival who was her main competitor for the games majors, Nour El Sherbini, with whom she shared three world open finals and one British Open title match
“Without doubt Nour [El Sherbini] is one of the biggest dangers to Nouran’s reign as World No.1 but of course, not the only one,” said El Welily.
“I think the big issue is Nour’s knee injury. As far as I know, it is still causing her problems and that will be a huge frustration for her and when you have a long-standing injury like that it is very frustrating and mentally draining.
El Welily (left) and El Sherbini (right) in the DPD Open final in 2019
“But the fact that Nour won the World Championship with this issue and was the only player to win two Platinum titles last season just underlines what a huge talent she is. Obviously, we played each other in three World Championship finals and one British Open final so Nour has so much experience of winning the majors and that is a huge advantage for her.
“She is still only 24-years-old and so there is so much more to come from her and I just hope she can shake of the injury and play free.”
French No.1 Camille Serme showed her intention to challenge once again for the game’s top spot when she claimed the J.P. Morgan Tournament of Champions title in Grand Central Terminal back in January.
‘La Panthere’ has been a rival of El Welily’s since they were juniors and the latter has no qualms in advancing Serme’s case for serious consideration.
“There are just a few months between us and we have been playing each other since we were 11 or 12 years-old and Camille was the closest player to me on tour,” the 2017 World Champion explained.
El Welily (left) and Serme (right) in action at the Tournament of Champions in 2020
“I know her game so well and I know how badly she wants to be No.1. Of course, like Nour, she has also proven that she can win the biggest titles like the British Open and that fantastic win in New York at the Tournament of Champions.
“I think she also has an excellent coach with Philippe Signoret in her corner. He has been with her since the beginning and they are such a strong team and I think Camille will not rest until she has that No.1 ranking. She is such a competitor and a fine athlete and has so much experience to draw upon, so she has it in her to go to the top of the rankings, there is no doubt.”
While a family tragedy badly impacted on Nour El Tayeb’s season last time around, El Welily reckons the suspension period will have afforded her vital time to take stock and refocus.
“Nour [El Tayeb] started last season so strongly and she won in China when she beat me and was a runner-up at the US Open and was, at the beginning of last season, probably playing the best squash on the tour,” she admitted.
El Welily (left) and El Tayeb (right) in action at the 2019 U.S. Open
“Unfortunately, a family tragedy had a profound impact on her and not surprisingly, her form dipped as a result. But now she has had the period of the suspension and the lockdown to come through all of that and when the tour resumes, she has the potential to beat anyone and achieve all her aims in the majors.”
There is one opponent that Raneem admits none of the leading ladies will want to see blocking their path to the spotlight of centre stage:
“Sarah-Jane [Perry] definitely has it in her locker to win a major. She is a great character, tactically very strong in all aspects of the game but I think the key for her will be to get everything to come together at the same time over a consistent period,” said El Welily.
“SJ definitely has the skills, she has already made the final of a major when she lost to Laura [Massaro] in the British Open a few years back and she has been at the business end of plenty of big tournaments and so has loads of experience.
El Welily (fore) up against Perry (back) in Philadelphia in 2019
“When the tour resumes, she will be fresh and any niggles she may have carried will be clear and if SJ makes a good start to the season then she will be a hard person to beat for anyone.”
In winning the CIB Black Ball Women’s Squash Open and dispatching four higher ranked players in the process as she climbed to a career high of World No.6, Raneem admits that Hania El Hammamy has proven she has the athleticism and skill to sweep all before her when momentum is with the 19-year-old.
“Hania has already achieved so much at such a young age and I know she has a huge future. She has a very good all-round game and is very quick and athletic and I think you could see when she came through and won at the Black Ball, before the suspension, just how much she wants it,” El Welily explained.
“The big frustration for her will be that she won a huge title like that and then the tour was suspended and it will be interesting to see how she comes back from the suspension because she lacks the experience of the other girls.
El Welily (left) and El Hammamy (right) in action at the 2019 World Championships in Chicago
“But then she has youth on her side and is so hungry to go to the very top and I am sure that level of motivation combined with the fact she had to beat four players ranked above her to win the Black Ball Open will make her very hungry for the restart.”
Next to come under the microscope is the ‘joker’ in the pack, the USA’s World No.7 Amanda Sobhy, who has recovered from a career threatening injury to regain her place in the top ten.
“Amanda is just such a character and great fun to be around but she is also very skilful. She was very unlucky with a bad Achilles injury a couple of years back, but she has come all the way back to where she was before that,” the Egyptian said.
“On her day she is a very dangerous player and we have had some tough battles between us. I have no doubt because of the way she has come back from her injury that she will be very motivated when the tour resumes and will believe she can land a big title.
El Welily (fore) and Sobhy (back) doing battle at the 2019 British Open in Hull
“You have also got to take into account Joelle King, who has had her injury problems and when on her game has won big titles and of course Tesni Evans is also in the top ten and will look to kick on when the tour resumes.”
But when it comes to ‘dark horse’ status, El Welily has reserved that tag for a fellow Egyptian, the emerging talent that is another 19-year-old, sitting at a career-high World No.15.
“The dark horse for me is Rowan Elaraby. She is a former World Junior Champion and she showed last season that she is capable of playing some exceptional squash,” El Welily explained.
“She pushed both Camille [Serme] and SJ [Perry] to five sets last season in New York and Chicago, respectively, and beat Nour El Tayeb on the way to the quarter-finals at the Windy City Open. So, I would say Rowan can definitely be one to watch next season.”
When it comes to a self-penned Epitaph for her own stellar career, Raneem has only one regret.
“I would love to have won the British Open, of that there is no doubt. I lost so many times in the quarter-finalss when I was seeded in the top two and it is a frustration that I maybe did not do myself justice at such a special tournament.
“But I can have zero regrets, I achieved so much and I am happy of what I did in the game and for me now is the right time to look forward to the next chapter in my life.”