By RJ Mitchell
David Palmer believes that the battle for the PSA World Tour men’s No.1 ranking between Ali Farag and Mohamed ElShorbagy and their compelling struggle for dominance can go on to become one of the most famous battles for global supremacy in the history of squash.
The former World No.1 looked forward to the New Year and the return of ElShorbagy, who he coached for almost two years, and reckons that the renewal of the ‘Beast of Alexandria’s’ bid to reclaim the World No.1 ranking from his greatest rival Farag, who took top spot back from ElShorbagy in November, is the best news possible for squash to bring in the New Year.
Interestingly, although the duo had met on 26 occasions, with ElShorbagy leading 12-8 in their head-to-heads, there was no encounter of the squash kind following the resumption of the PSA World Tour in Manchester in September.
That meant that the last time the most heavily anticipated match-up on the men’s tour was played out came in the final of the Canary Wharf Classic in March, just before the tour was suspended due to the COVID-19 Pandemic.
But with ElShorbagy’s 30th birthday due in January, the Beast will once again roam far and wide in his pursuit of Farag and the global squash throne that he has made his own over the last six years since he first claimed the top ranking in November 2014.
Palmer, who himself twice reigned as No.1, said: “The head to heads between Mohamed and Ali have been great. Rivalries are what make our game and I think once the PSA World Tour gets back up and running then their rivalry will resume and that is good news for squash.
“I also think their rivalry will go on to be one of the best in the history of our sport and will continue to unfold over the next two or three years to come and that it can continue to drive our game forward.
“You can’t take credit away from Ali, things have been so tight between him and Mohamed that maybe even if Mohamed had been in all the tournaments then Ali would still be World No.1. But Ali will now be doing exactly the same thing as Mohamed as he knows that there are young guys coming up.
Ali Farag during the semi-finals in Qatar
“But it’s been fun to see the battle between Mohamed and Ali for the number one slot. Obviously, there are other players who are very close, and you have Tarek [Momen] as the World Champion right now and Paul Coll has made great strides but on their day Mohamed and Ali are out in front, I believe, and are the best.”
Despite a shock third round defeat in the Qatar Classic at the hands of Youssef Ibrahim in his last competitive outing, Palmer, who helped coach ElShorbagy to his 2019 British Open triumph, has dismissed any concerns that ElShorbagy’s is suffering due to a lack of tournaments.
The four-time British Open champion said: “Unfortunately, a whole lot of things have gone against Mohamed in terms of most of the tournaments having been in Egypt and the issues he has had associated with playing there but I wouldn’t worry to much about the loss in Qatar.
“It was a day where he was a little off and Youssef [Ibrahim] had the match of his lifetime but knowing Mohamed, he will use this time to his benefit.
“It was so much fun working with him as every minute of the day was dedicated to working towards making himself the best player in the world and the best player he could be and I’m sure he is working closely with Hadrian [Stiff] back in Bristol and also with Rod Martin.
“So, knowing Mohamed the way I do, I’m sure the minute the first tournament is up in 2021, he will be a million per cent ready for it. He still has lots to prove in the squash world, I don’t think he is going anywhere, and I think he will come back better than ever. That would be my viewpoint on it.”
There is no doubt that the return of his former charge to the squash fray is something that excites Palmer, who has recently agreed to coach the Indian National Team at the 2021 Asian Team Championships.
“For sure I am excited to see what Mohamed will do when he returns and I’m confident he will leave no stone unturned in his bid to make sure he is ready to go in 2021. I’m also sure he will be extremely motivated.
“I caught an interview Mohamed did recently where he had revealed that he had taken some time off from his work during the COVID enforced suspension of the PSA World Tour, lost a bit of weight and then rebuilt his muscle mass so he is using his time to be very smart.
“It is not easy to prepare a training schedule when you are not 100% sure on how the tournament calendar will unfold but Mohamed is smart, and he has set himself very high standards and there is one thing you can guarantee and that is that he will not allow himself to fall below these standards and he will be ready to go whenever the tour restarts.”
When it comes to the man who stands between ElShorbagy and the keys to No.1, Palmer has nothing but good to say about Ali Farag, who won two of the last three tournaments before the festive break and was only denied his first ever three-in-a-row title charge after succumbing to an epic five game defeat by Fares Dessouky in the Black Ball Open in December.
The two-time former World Champion said: “Ali is a very good role model, overall, for the game, he is also a nice person and I believe his style is very encouraging for juniors. His mannerisms on court are excellent and again I think his head-to-heads with Mohamed have been amazing to watch.
“Just like in my day you had to win five matches to win a major tournament, perhaps there are more days off now than back in my prime, but it comes down to getting through the early rounds without sustaining any damage, expending to much energy, and spending too much time on court and Ali is very good in dealing with all of that and of managing the tournaments.
“You can see that sometimes the guys get through to the later rounds, but they have had a couple of five-gamers and it takes the edge of and with Mohamed as well being a little older he has to be very smart about that.
“But whatever Ali is doing its working and going forward in 2021 it’s about continuing the improvement and development of his game. But he has the right people around him in Karim Darwish, he is on a good path and it’s exciting to see them going back at it.”
The news that Germany’s Simon Rösner has retired has meant that the chasing pack has lost one of its most consistent members, yet Fares Dessouky’s seminal success at the CIB Black Ball Open and a supporting cast who have all had their moments in the spotlight against the Farag and ElShorbagy, means that the great Palmer has no doubt there will be threats a plenty coming the way of the big two in the New Year.
“Fares Dessouky came through at the Black Ball and that was a huge win for him to beat Ali in the final from two games down and also to beat Momen over five games in the semis and [Karim Abdel] Gawad over the same distance earlier in the tournament.
“Then there is Paul Coll who gave Ali a real battle in the final at Qatar, Joel Makin is improving, and Diego [Elias] is a threat to anyone when he is on his game. Tarek Momen has become very consistent coming towards the end of his career and has won that World Championship.
“So, for both Ali and Mohamed there are a lot of threats out there in 2021 which will have them looking over their shoulders while from the other perspective it will be fascinating to see how the challengers will have moved their games on to try and battle towards No.1 and knock Ali and Mohamed off the top of the tree.”