By RJ Mitchell
In the first part of an exclusive series of interviews, 2017 World Champion Mohamed ElShorbagy looks back on the rivalries that have defined his career and relives his own personal highlights reel.
After his recent 30th birthday, the British Open champion was keen to reflect on his 15 years on tour while dissecting his personal rivalries with fellow former World No.1s Nick Matthew and Greg Gaultier and reveal the mind games between the trio, both on and off the court.
Explaining just what these two greats of our game did to drive their younger rival’s own squash to new exalted levels and just how tough his wars with ‘The Wolf’ and ‘The French General’ were. Why he learned more from Matthew than any of the other great champions he has battled and what caused him to view Gaultier as a ’monster’ on court after losing their first nine meetings in succession.
But first, 15 years after he debuted on tour as a callow 15 – year-old, could ElShorbagy have foreseen he would still have been at the top of the game after his 30th birthday?
“When I joined the PSA, the goal was to be where I am today, and I believed I could do it. I also knew that if I were going to do it would depend on many things, like keeping myself injury free, improving my game continually, staying motivated and that if I had all these things in check, I was confident I could get to where I am now,” he said.
“I know I have been lucky, in that for the most part I have been able to keep it going, but I am only human. I certainly have days where I don’t get it perfect on that daily basis, I’m not motivated for training as much as I should be but for the best part of my career, I would say I have done more right than wrong!”
When it comes to the rivalries that have shaped and informed ElShorbagy’s game and just how he has acquired the single-mindedness that have continued to drive him and made him the great constant in a period that has spawned three eras of great champions it is the 24 meetings with Nick Matthew that the Egyptian nods too.
“Nick was the player I learned most from. Each day I was playing Nick I knew that the minute I stepped on court with him, well that he was going to take me to war, and I had to be ready for that every single time we played,” ‘The Beast’ said.
ElShorbagy (back) and Matthew (fore) in action at the 2017 British Open
“I remember in the morning before I would play him my face was set and ready for battle, I just had to adopt that mentality. You knew it was never going to be easy. There were times when I played him, and he had not been playing well at the beginning of the tournament, but he got through and you still knew that once he played a big match against one of his rivals, that he would step it up big time.
“If you had to choose a guy who you needed for a big match then Nick is that guy. He just always stepped it up, took it to another level and that was why my finals with him were so good. I just knew that if I were to beat him, I would have to take him beyond his best and that meant I had to play at the absolute top of my game.
“But I always enjoyed our matches as there was always so much happening in them from changes of pace, attacking certain areas, the flight of the ball, mental aspects, the lot, so from that generation Nick Matthew was the one I learned the most from.
“When I sat and watched him play the other guys, when I was climbing the rankings, he was the guy I was learning most from. Having said that because of this I think this is why I had a win when I was 17 against him, because I had studied him so many time and really dissected his game.”
The duo first met in 2008 in the early rounds of the Qatar Classic when Matthew schooled the teenage ElShorbagy in straight games. ElShorbagy took that victory a year later at the 2009 Canary Wharf Classic.
Yet in a rivalry that saw the pair compete in seven major finals, ElShorbagy prevailed in six of these while ending up with a 14-10 head-to-head over ‘The Wolf’, although it was the indomitable Matthew who had the last laugh, when he prevailed in their final encounter in the group stages of the ATCO World Tour Series Finals in 2018.
Looking back at these momentous meetings with the man whom he still clearly holds so much respect for, ElShorbagy recalled: “Nick and I had so many finals against each other and they were just so intense and the way he played, the way he had his tactics against players and how strong he was mentally, well he had a little bit of everything, you know.
“Yeah, Matthew was just really, really hard, he was the only player that between games I would be asking my team: ‘What is Nick going to do next?’ Normally I ask myself what I am going to do next against my opponent but with Nick, he was the only one I was asking: ‘What is Nick thinking? What is he going to do next?’.
“That was because he would always change things up during the match and that made me improve my mind, made me think more during a match. So, Nick Matthew was just a very special player, a unique player.”
When it comes to the other rival who helped mould ElShorbagy into the teak-tough competitor who has been the game’s dominant factor for most of the last decade the Gallic genius of Gregory Gaultier is also accorded revered status.
The duo met on 23 occasions with ElShorbagy holding a narrow 12-11 supremacy, with six of those meetings in major finals, in which ElShorbagy claimed a 4-2 dominance, yet it was the painful nine-match losing streak to ‘The French General’ at the start of their rivalry that instilled the Egyptian’s famous ‘refuse to lose’ mentality.
Gaultier (left) and ElShorbagy (right) at the 2017 World Series Finals
“Greg was like a monster on court. He was the shortest out of all of us but somehow, he made his presence on court one of the biggest and that was one of his great attributes on court. He just made himself so there, he played at such a pace and volleyed so much, and he took your time away,” the Egyptian explained.
“The first time I beat Greg was after he beat me for the first nine matches in which we played! So, it took me a long time to figure out how to beat Greg. I remember in that period of time that Nick, Greg, and I were contending for the major titles, maybe six years back, well Greg was always looking the best as he took out the lower seeds the most efficiently of us all.
“That meant that Greg would always get to the later stages, be it the semis or finals, the freshest. So, most times I met Greg I knew there would be a time in the match when I am going to go through hell physically as he would push me that hard but that if I could get through that period then I know I could get that win at the end.
“But there would be a time, say in mid-match where he would put a big push on, he would move so high up the tee, play at such a fast tempo, taking the ball so early, it would be so hard to just win a point at that time.
“But I always knew that if I could just stay with him for that period of maybe 30 minutes or so, then I can get the next 20 minutes and be on top but to go through that first period, well there were plenty of times I just couldn’t keep up.
“The bottom line is that it took me a long time to find the solution with Greg and yes, his pace was the highest I ever came across.”
As you would expect mind games and mentality played a great part in the meetings of the trio as the two great masters tried keep the upstart apprentice in his place.
With Matthew 10-and-a-half years ElShorbagy’s senior and Gaultier a month short of nine years his elder, it made for some fascinating sub plots to their all – embracing battles for supremacy.
“I think our matches had a lot of intensity, a lot of mind games happened, Nick and Greg were both so strong mentally and they used this. Even in interviews before matches they played mind games but on court, Greg, Nick, and I, we sometimes spoke to each other,” he revealed.
“It was just part of what happened with that generation and you just had to adapt. Looking back, it brought the best out of us all and made us all get better and we had all so much respect for each other.
“But by the age of 22 or 23 I had played them already for six years or so and although they had more experience than me, I had, by then, beaten them a few times and so experience was not such a big factor, it was about who was the best on the day.
“When I was 19 or 20, the first time I had a chance to beat Greg was in Mexico and definitely that day, Greg got me because of experience, I got too excited I was beating him for the first time but at 22 it was more about who was the best on the day. In these matches it didn’t matter who had trained the hardest because we all put the work in, it just came down to whose day it was.”
In next week’s not to be missed part two, ElShorbagy, the man revered globally within the game as ‘The Beast of Alexandria’, will turn his attention to his rivalry with Ramy Ashour. Also, relive his greatest moments in some of the most titanic tussles in the sport’s history including the match in which he played the best squash of his life, and lost.