By RJ Mitchell
Laura Massaro believes that Nour El Sherbini is playing the best squash of her career, but the scary message for the rest of the PSA Women’s Tour from the former world champion is that she reckons the best is still to come from ‘The Warrior Princess’.
In terms of assessing just where the World No.1’s game is at prior to El Sherbini returning to action at the El Gouna International Open next week, there are few better qualified than the great English woman.
Massaro split two unforgettable World Championship finals with the 25-year-old, winning the first in five games in Penang in 2013. She then lost the second in Kuala Lumpur two years later after having taken an apparently unassailable two game lead in a gut-wrenching five-game battle which also cost Massaro her World No.1 position.
The duo met on 15 occasions, the last of those coming in the semi-final of the Allam British Open in 2018, with the Egyptian edging another five-game epic.
Not surprising then that since her retirement in May 2019 the former World No.1 has taken more than a passing interest in the fortunes of one of her most formidable rivals.
“Although I wouldn’t say Nour is the complete player I would say she is playing the best that she has played, and I guess you would expect that. Every year you have got to go forward, and it looked like that was the case at the Black Ball with Nour,” the Englishwoman said.
“I think it just shows her growing maturity but if you don’t progress your game and move on then you are going backwards on tour and Nour has of course bettered her game in every area. While that’s great and expected of a player of her calibre I don’t think she is the complete player – yet!
“I also don’t think Nour would think of herself as a complete player. You have to have places to improve and things you want to work on to keep you fresh and working on areas of your game.
“But looking back when I played her in the first World Championship final which I won, she was still a junior and wearing goggles, it was almost like she couldn’t believe what she had done. Obviously, when I played her in the second World final there was everything on that.
“It was a World Championship final, the World No.1 ranking hung on it and also there was a car on it as a prize. It was a tough loss go take as I was two games up.”
With the countdown to El Gouna firmly on, Massaro admits she can look no further than the reigning World Champion when it comes to a favourite:
“Nour is World No.1, has just won the last event and has performed well in El Gouna over the years, so you can’t not put her in as favourite based on current form and ranking.
“It has been a fair amount of time since the last event, and it will be interesting to see if anyone has got themselves ready to step up. But you have to ask if the girls who have done well over the last couple of events will pick up from where they left off, make a quarter or a semi or go that step further and win it?
Nour El Sherbini celebrates victory at the CIB Black Ball Squash Open in March 2021
“So, it would be nice to see some of the other girls go out and play the disciplined squash underpinned by technical ability that will pressure the Egyptian girls a bit more and see how they respond when someone gets stuck in to them.
“But I thought after the last Black Ball event in 2020 that knowing Nour, and having played against her, that she would have regrouped as it would have annoyed her going out early. So, I expected a strong response and she showed to everyone that she had gone away and worked hard, and she delivered that response.
“I think with Nour she is always trying to find that balance between being serious and determined, as she was when she was saying she hadn’t won the Black Ball and how determined she was to win it and putting it out there that she wants to win this title, but also staying quite relaxed in terms of her match play.
“For me I think she plays her best squash when she is relaxed and when she loses it is because she has got too serious or not serious enough. When she gets that balance right between being determined but relaxed, we have the Nour El Sherbini that everyone needs to worry about. She certainly did that last time out.”
When it came to two of El Sherbini’s biggest rivals, World No.2 Nouran Gohar and reigning World Tour Finals champion Hania El Hammamy, Massaro admits that El Gouna is shaping up to be a pivotal tournament in terms of their hopes for the game’s two major titles, the British Open and World Championships, later this summer.
The two-time British Open champion said: “Nouran actually looked in good shape in the last match I saw her in at the Black Ball and it was just unfortunate that she had a bit of a misstep in terms of breaching the COVID rules.
“But I can’t imagine anything less than it has made her even more hungry just like it did for Fares Dessouky or Marwan ElShorbagy when they came back.
“When you talk about someone stepping up to the mark, Hania looked like that person as she had the game, the physicality and the mentality to be that person and very quickly people started putting her in the same league as El Sherbini.
“People felt that she could challenge for that No.1 slot and I guess we all know that she is talented and has won big events and beaten every one there is to beat and now it’s about finding that consistency.
“So, I guess the only slight question mark over Hania is can she do it when she is expected to do it? Not just be content to do it when she is the up and comer and on the way through, but I have no doubt that she will be about for the long run and be a force to be reckoned with.
Hania El Hammamy
“Yet for Hania it is about how quickly she can mature to handle pressure and to handle people getting stuck into her in a squash sense and of course physically and mentally. Really it is just about her maturity and of course she is young, and her squash is amazing.
“That said I always think that when people storm onto the scene there is an element of an adjustment for the opposition, they have to work out where she is in their minds and that can take a season to do that. Then you start to get the player’s full respect and their game plan develops against a player like Hania and people prepare for these matches and treat Hania as a top four player and not thinking: ‘Is this a bit of a fluke?’
“So, Hania has to deal with the pressure on herself, the pressure of other people talking about her and deal with the other players taking her as a serious, serious contender when they play her. It is now a serious match up of play when someone like an SJ [Perry] or Gohar meets her as they put that extra attention into their matches with Hania that they may not have a year back.”
When it comes to the chasing pack Amanda Sobhy may have made the Black Ball final last time around before losing to El Sherbini in the final, while also having beaten the world champion at the last event of 2020 where Sarah-Jane Perry was the winner, but Massaro says the falling of the cards in the land of the Pharaohs next time out will be fascinating.
“You look at these last two events and anyone could step up to the plate as they are all playing well but its just who is going to come out and put their head up above the group and say I am challenging Sherbini for No.1 or I’m taking that next spot at No.2,” the 2013 World Champion said.
“There can be a clear No.1 a lot of the time but sometimes there is also a clear No.2 ahead of the chasing pack but there is no one I think that has done that and is clearly challenging Sherbini and has climbed above the pack.
“So, it’s not like when you had Nicol [David] at No.1 and Natalie Grinham was clear No.2 and then it was the same with me and Nicol for a time and then Raneem [El Welily] came along and then the three of us were ahead of everyone else for a while.
“But I guess if it were me and I was looking at some of these players in that chasing pack I’d be saying to myself: ‘How am I going to separate myself from the rest of the group and make these big semis and finals?’
“Also, it’s about finding a way not to lose in the quarters. Last eight is a great result and you are top eight in the world but you don’t win titles if you are losing more in the quarters than the semis or finals.”