By RJ Mitchell
For World No.1 Nour El Sherbini 2021 was by any metric an exceptional year.
The 26 – year-old claimed her fifth World Championship title and her third British Open championship while also ending the calendar year as World No.1 when her second reign as Queen of the squash court stretched to 13 uninterrupted months.
2022 hasn’t started off too badly either with the father of the professional game ‘Mr Squash’ himself, Jonah Barrington, hailing the Egyptian as the greatest female player ever in a recent interview.
While delighted with the kind words of the squash immortal, El Sherbini is determined to ensure that her best is still to come and has highlighted Nicol David’s record of eight World Championship titles as a long-term goal that will continue to drive her.
Yet her dominance over the last year and her hopes for the future all hinge on a long – standing knee issue that continues to dictate the content and intensity of her daily practise sessions and will, she admits, need to be managed for the remainder of her already stellar career.
Upbeat and relaxed as she chatted down the line from her homeland this most modest of World No.1’s said: “It’s very nice for me to hear these kind words from Jonah and a great way to start 2022. He knows squash and squash players so well and probably better than anyone, so it was very kind of him to say these words as he is a legend of our game and I very much appreciate them.
“Of course I hope to keep improving and that is my target, the game is not easy and all the time everyone else improves. But it is not just about improving your squash there are so many other parts to it that you must work hard on to keep moving your game forward.
“Obviously fitness is very important and how you prepare and take care of your body and that gets harder as time goes on. But you have to have a goal to reach and when you achieve that then you must set a new target and keep driving yourself on.
“So you always try to think outside of the box and keep improving parts of your game and work on other different aspects because, as I mentioned, you know that everyone else is also doing this.”
While David’s daunting record of eight World Championship title victories from eight finals may seem a stretch away El Sherbini is already second on the world title ranking list having won five titles from seven final appearances.
Nicol David with the PSA World Championship trophy
A sequence that started in Penang, in 2013, with a defeat to England’s Laura Massaro while most recently ‘The Warrior Princess’ vanquished arch rival Nouran Gohar in Chicago last year in four games of almost unparalleled ferocity and quality.
Her respect for David, whom she beat in the semi-final of the 2013 World Championships en route to that maiden final and looked up to as role model, clear, El Sherbini is almost bashful about comparing their records when the question is put: “What Nicol did was amazing and I never thought I could do the same as she did, really winning eight world championships is unbelievable.
“I just dreamt of winning one world championship and I am really proud to have my name compared to Nicol’s and for people to say that I may be able to reach her record or beat it as Nicol was always my idol and I was always looking up to her.
“Maybe at the beginning I didn’t think I would ever reach this point and I was just so happy to win one world championship and to become World No.1 but now I think: ‘Wow, I am halfway there!’
“But although it is there, I try not to think a lot about it and to focus on each world championship as it comes. The worlds are always so important to me, so I try to peak for it and play my best squash and then see where that takes me.
“I don’t know how many more Worlds I will have whether it will be three or four or maybe more that will all depend on me staying healthy and each one I will play in I will treat it as the most important and we will see how it goes.”
While El Sherbini’s main rivals maybe her countrywomen Nouran Gohar and Hania El Hammamy, the World No.1 was keen to underline the point that the women’s tour has never been so strong during her 13 years of elite competition.
The three-time British Open champion said: “I have always been challenged since I first came on the tour, I have played against different generations of great players. At the start there was Laura [Massaro], Nicol [David], Raneem [El Welily] Nour [El Tayeb].
“First I was trying to just make the top-10 and now I have a different challenge with Nouran and Hania who are my main rivals for No.1 but there are many other good players too and that is why the women’s game is so exciting now.
“I respect all of my opponents and you also have Amanda [Sobhy] and Camille [Serme] and all of the girls are raising their game and making it physically very hard.
“Especially Hania and Nouran they are constantly trying to improve and change their game and virtually every time we play there is something different to their play and I really respect that.
“In every tournament it is like they have lifted a level and that is challenging me and forcing me to keep improving myself. I know that I must keep looking to add to my game to withstand their challenge.
“I am sure we will have many other good tournaments where we have great matches and that will be good for the game because they have played some great squash and as I say I respect all of the girls.”
El Sherbini also took time out to bestow warm words of encouragement on rising English star Georgina Kennedy who she defeated in the semi-final of the recent Black Ball Open in Cairo: “Georgina is already very good and definitely she is one of the up-and-coming players and she is already a danger to the top girls as she showed when she made it to the semi-finals of the Black Ball and beat a top-10 player like SJ [Perry] on the way.
“She plays a different type of squash and also has great physical ability and I am sure she will have a very good year ahead and it is great to see new faces and new players coming through to challenge those at the top as that is good for our game.”
Yet there is one shadow that continues to cast shade on this most brilliant of careers and that is El Sherbini’s right knee which was first operated on 10 years ago and presents a daily challenge as formidable as any of the Alexandrian’s relentless rivals.
The World No.1 admitted: “It is actually the same situation as two or three years ago but the big difference is that I know how to manage it that bit better and that is helping when I get on court now.
“I understand my body that bit better now and I know what my body can take and when it is time to rest and be careful as in patches it can still be very bad.
“At the British it was really bad as I had another issue and I always overload my left side and it was tough to balance between the two legs and to keep things stable.
“I have to manage my practise sessions and make sure I don’t overload it and of course I work hard on strengthening exercises and other aspects to protect and make it stronger and make sure that I am not in so much pain.
“But I still have the problem and still have the pain and I must be careful with my practise and I also have to work very hard to make sure I don’t have any other injuries in other parts of my body so I can keep it balanced.”