By RJ Mitchell
Amr Shabana has described Mohamed ElShorbagy as “a shark” who just never goes away as the four-time World Champion looks forward to the resumption of the PSA World Tour in Manchester on Wednesday.
Last season ElShorbagy regained his status as World No.1 for a record fourth time and was rightly revered as PSA Men’s Player of the Season.
But now the man known as ‘The Maestro’, who was the first Egyptian man to become World No.1 and World Champion, has made it clear that ElShorbagy is the man to beat in Manchester this week, as he cast his shrewd eye over the runners and riders in the first PSA World Tour event for six months.
Yet Shabana believes that the PSA World top 10 has never been tighter and has revealed that he will be fascinated to see if New Zealand’s Paul Coll can continue to ruffle the feathers of the Egyptian big four who have control of the games major titles and top four ranking slots.
Shabana has also admitted he will be fascinated to see if his former prodigy Karim Abdel Gawad can reclaim top dog status from his countryman ElShorbagy and reclaim the consistency that has eluded him since he won the World Championship and occupied the rankings summit some three years back.
“For me, ElShorbagy is like a shark, he is just so hungry and wants it so much,” said Shabana.
“He never gives up and if someone gets passed him, he goes away and figures out how to get back on top of him.
“Of course it will be very interesting to see how everyone returns to action in Manchester, but ElShorbagy will be the man to beat and I would imagine he will have been working very hard during the suspension to make sure he comes back at the top of his game.
“At the end of last season, before the suspension, Paul Coll was starting to make a real impression on the top four and of course he had a great run in Chicago where he beat ElShorbagy for the first time and backed it up with a win over Gawad before [Ali] Farag hauled him back in in the final when he ran out of gas.
“So you have to say it will be very interesting to see if Coll can build on that but as I said all of these top guys , if they are fired up and really on it, they have the chance of getting a big result against another one of the top guys. It is that close, and I think really the intensity of the rivalry in the men’s game is almost unique in its depth.
“But there is no doubt that ElShorbagy is the man to beat in Manchester and it will all be a fascinating watch.”
The great Shabana enjoyed a 20 year career as a PSA professional in which he enjoyed a 33-month reign as World No.1 and he has no doubt about the rude health of the current men’s game: “In the last 10 years or so I believe that the gap between No.1 and No.10 has narrowed and right now there isn’t a lot in it.
“Back in the nineties Jansher Khan was out on his own and of course he was being chased by the likes of Rodney Martin, Rodney Eyles, Peter Marshall and Peter Nicol but now I think it is very much a case of who puts it all together on the day.
“It is definitely much closer today than it even was in my day. Obviously, you have the top four places all occupied by my countrymen but then you have Paul Coll and the young Peruvian Diego Elias, and they have both had successes against the top four.
“Then there is Marwan [ElShorbagy] at seven who has made a World Championship final and Simon Rösner who has won in New York at ToC and Miguel Rodriguez is a former British Open champion at No.9, so the competition is very fierce and every one of these guys will fancy his chances when he is on.”
But there is one occupant of the top 10, who enjoys a special place in Shabana’s affections, Karim Abdel Gawad, who was very much the apprentice to Shabana’s sorcerer.
“Obviously I know Karim very well from his days as a junior and growing up and we practiced plenty at the Gezira Club, in Cairo, maybe three four or five days a week doing drills and routines and of course we played plenty of practise matches and he has all the talent in the world.
Karim Abdel Gawad
“Karim is one of a few guys that I tried everything I could to stop him getting in front of me because once he got there you had no idea where he was going to put the ball. Along with Jonathon Power, it was always bad news when he got in front of me.
“So, he is one tricky customer and despite the amount of times we played I still couldn’t read him when he was in front. Tarek Momen is another I found exceptionally hard to read at the front as he would snap or break his wrist at the last minute but with Karim it all came off the one stroke and it was real hard to get a read on him.
“But Karim has just turned 29 and is now at his peak. He has the experience of having been World Champion and World No.1 and it is now about how bad he wants to be there again. He has all the talent he could wish for but now he must add that consistency and of course I wish him well in his quest.”
When it comes to reflecting on his own illustrious career the Maestro has no doubt about the highlights: “If I had to pick one high point it would be winning my first World title. I think I was ranked No.12 in the world and maybe seeded as low as No.11 and the week before I had lost in the quarter finals in Qatar and considered that a good result,” laughed Shabana.
“So, when I came right through the draw and beat Thierry Lincou in the final I was the lowest ranked player to win the world title and that is something that I still look back on with a lot of pride.
“I also spent 11 years in the top 10 and that is something that on reflection pleases me because it shows a consistency that is not easy to replicate year after year.
“Obviously, it would have been nice to have won a British Open and losing to David Palmer in the final in 2004 was tough to take, particularly as I was up in the third game and lost it on a tie-break. But I can say that I gave it absolutely everything in that match and came up just short, so there can be no regret there.
“Put it this way I wouldn’t trade one of my World titles for a British. So I have no regrets and I take a lot of satisfaction from having been No.1 for almost three years and also of course to be the first Egyptian to make it to the top of the rankings and become World Champion.”
When it came to Shabana’s greatest rival the four-time World Champion reserves that revered slot for the man who succeeded him at the top of the PSA Rankings, his fellow countryman Karim Darwish: “Of all the guys I had a rivalry with then perhaps the one I enjoyed most was with Karim Darwish and obviously he succeeded me as No.1. We lived on opposite sides of the same street in Cairo. Karim was just under two years younger than me and we had played together since we were kids.
“Darwish had this superb Aussie trickle boast and while it was no fun to play him, especially when he was in the front backhand corner, it sure was to watch him torturing other guys with it. Especially those he was playing for the first time!
“The thing about Darwish was that he gave you absolutely nothing for free and you knew that before you went on the court and that generated a pressure of its own. Even in practice Darwish gave you nothing, he was that mean!
“I think I only beat him once or twice in practice during my whole career and that about sums it up. For me Darwish was the toughest, no doubt about it.”
The Manchester Open will be shown live on SQUASHTV (rest of world), Eurosport Player (Europe only), the official Facebook page of the PSA World Tour (excluding Europe and Japan) and multiple mainstream broadcast channels around the world.
Manchester Open: Men’s Draw:
 Mohamed ElShorbagy (EGY) v Raphael Kandra (GER)
Tayyab Aslam (PAK) v  James Willstrop (ENG)
 Gregory Gaultier (FRA) v Declan James (ENG)
Tom Richards (ENG) v  Diego Elias (PER)
 Paul Coll (NZL) v Baptiste Masotti (FRA)
Alan Clyne (SCO) v  Fares Dessouky (EGY)
 Mohamed Abouelghar (EGY) v George Parker (ENG)
Abdulla Mohd Al Tamimi (QAT) v  Tarek Momen (EGY)
 Karim Abdel Gawad (EGY) v Lucas Serme (FRA)
Victor Crouin (FRA) v  Joel Makin (WAL)
 Omar Mosaad (EGY) v Nicolas Mueller (SUI)
Mathieu Castagnet (FRA) v  Simon Rösner (GER)
 Marwan ElShorbagy (EGY) v Daryl Selby (ENG)
[WC] Patrick Rooney (ENG) v  Adrian Waller (ENG)
 Gregoire Marche (FRA) v Youssef Soliman (EGY)
Greg Lobban (SCO) v  Ali Farag (EGY)
Manchester Open: Women’s Draw
 Camille Serme (FRA) v Sabrina Sobhy (USA)
[WC] Lily Taylor (ENG) v  Nele Gilis (BEL)
 Nada Abbas (EGY) v Lucy Turmel (ENG)
Ineta Mackevica (LAT) v  Joelle King (NZL)
 Salma Hany (EGY) v Melissa Alves (FRA)
Hana Ramadan (EGY) v  Coline Aumard (FRA)
 Nadine Shahin (EGY) v Danielle Letourneau (CAN)
Enora Villard (FRA) v  Hania El Hammamy (EGY)
 Sarah-Jane Perry (ENG) v Lisa Aitken (SCO)
Hollie Naughton (CAN) v  Millie Tomlinson (ENG)
 Alison Waters (ENG) v Julianne Courtice (ENG)
Zeina Mickawy (EGY) v  Tesni Evans (WAL)
 Amanda Sobhy (USA) v Emilia Soini (FIN)
Haley Mendez (USA) v  Tinne Gilis (BEL)
 Donna Lobban (AUS) v Rachael Chadwick (ENG)
Jasmine Hutton (ENG) v  Nour El Tayeb (EGY)