By RJ Mitchell
Karim Darwish, legendary former player and current coach of World No.1 Ali Farag, has said that ending the calendar year with the No.1 ranking has greater significance than at any other time of the year.
Darwish himself became the game’s top male player in January 2009, thanks to his victory at the PSA World Series Saudi International in December, having beaten Amr Shabana, Nick Matthew, and Gregory Gaultier along the way.
Now, 12 years later, ‘The Dark Prince’ is once again involved in a battle for control of the rankings summit, this time in his capacity as coach.
Farag, who has been the world’s top-ranked player for 24 of the last 36 months, will go into the new year with his crown still attached. Any slip in January, though, and the Egyptian is in real danger of being dethroned by New Zealand’s World No.2 Paul Coll.
The final major men’s tournament of the year, the CIB Squash Open Black Ball, is currently underway. With Farag and Coll – who are seeded one and two for the PSA World Tour Gold tournament – expected to meet in the final, Darwish has backed his man to stand firm.
Coll and Farag clash in the Canary Wharf Classic final
Explaining the significance of finishing a year strongly, the 2009 PSA Player of the Year said: “Of course to be No.1 at the end of the year has extra importance, I don’t think there is any doubt that to be going into the New Year as No.1 has added significance and it is the same in all sport.
“Being No.1 for any athlete in any sport is the pinnacle and I was lucky enough to reach that and stay there for almost a year. It meant a lot, just as the fact I stayed in the top 10 for almost a decade was also important to me, because it showed how consistent I was and consistency is something that is very important.”
Although the record books show Farag boasts a healthy 15-3 record against Coll, in truth the pair are far more evenly matched. In the four matches they have played in 2021, both men have won twice, with Coll beating Farag in the finals of the British Open and Canary Wharf Classic, and Farag downing Coll in the Egyptian Open semi final and the Oracle NetSuite Open final.
Considering this, Darwish said that he was in no mood to play down the threat posed by Coll and that ultimately the pair’s budding rivalry will benefit both men, and the game in general. He explained: “You always want to finish the last tournament on a win, especially with Paul now coming very strongly at No.2 and the difference in the ranking points is not that big between him and Ali and of course Paul is very hungry to become No.1.”
“I had my rivalries with Peter Nicol, David Palmer, Ramy Ashour, Amr Shabana, Greg Gaultier and Nick Matthew, and those rivalries are important for the game and with [World No.3 and former World No.1] Mohamed ElShorbagy not playing the Black Ball, it is important and good for the game that we have a strong rivalry between Ali and Paul developing.”
He added: “In 2022 we know that Mohamed will be coming back and I believe he is determined to come back stronger than ever and that will also be good for the game as he has been at the top for many years now.”
Farag has dominated the top spot for 24 of the last 36 months.
Farag’s position at the top will hold into January, regardless of his results in Cairo, thanks to his convincing rankings lead of 3080 points over Coll.
Darwish, however, acknowledges that greater dangers may be around the corner, with the Platinum J.P. Morgan Tournament of Champions scheduled for 13-21 January.
Reflecting on this, Darwish said a good points haul from CIB Squash Open Black Ball was both essential and achievable for Farag. He explained: “Ali has been the most consistent player over the last couple of years and he has everything he needs to win the Black Ball, especially with it being in Egypt in his homeland and he is very much looking forward to the challenge from Paul.
“Not having played a tournament for the last month or so, he has been working hard, so with Mohamed not playing the Black Ball, in terms of form Ali is up there with Paul Coll and the competition will be tough.
“But I think he is in a very good place to have a strong tournament.”
Asal has been in scintillating form over the past year.
Should Farag reach the CIB Squash Open Black Ball semi finals untroubled, he is seeded to face tough competition in either former World No.1 Karim Abdel Gawad or the game’s coming force, Mostafa Asal.
Yet Darwish, after overseeing a positive training block from the World No.1, is relaxed about Farag’s chances.
He said: “I am quite happy with Ali’s preparation, he has everything he needs to win the tournament and the fact it is five minutes away from his home is always nice for any player, so of course Ali is really looking forward to it as well and playing in front of his home fans.
“Mostafa is on fire and really hungry, but Ali has the experience and has everything to cope with that and any of the other top-5 or top-8 players, so I am not going to say it is a tougher quarter or tougher half than the other side of the draw.
“All top-8 guys are really strong and whoever is better on the day can beat the other, which is good for the game and the results at recent tournaments show how tight it is at the top.”
Round two of the men’s CIB Squash Open Black Ball begins today at 12:00 (GMT+2). Watch all the action live on SQUASHTV (worldwide).
You can keep up with the live scores from the event here.