By RJ Mitchell
Mazen Hesham may have just broken into the top 10 for the first time but in a brutally honest interview the squash maverick admitted that only a couple of years ago he was on the verge of quitting squash.
Hesham’s impressive run to the final of the PSA World Tour Gold Houston Open, in which he defeated World No.7 Marwan ElShorbagy for the first time, helped him breach the elite echelon and he backed that up with a quarter final slot at the Motor City Open in his next outing.
Yet the 27-year-old has revealed that the debilitating problems caused by a sports hernia and the aftermath of the surgery he had to endure to fix it brought him to the brink and still stifles his ability to train to the maximum even to this day.
The Egyptian had previously reached No.13 in the PSA world rankings but dropped out of the top 50 in 2017 and as Hesham revealed the road back has been a long and winding one, yet with his arrival in the top 10 for the first time he has at last been rewarded for his impressive perseverance.
He said: “I had a sports hernia and I went to the US to get it fixed and the surgery did not go well and there were complications with my groin. In fact I am still suffering from this problem today although the pain is getting less and fingers crossed it will eventually heal.
“I feel like while other people are training 100% my percentage has been a lot less but now that is starting to change and I am putting more and more effort into my training and hopefully over the next few months things will continue to improve with my results because of that.
“But I don’t want to go at 200mph and then get injured, it has to be a step-by-step process for me. When I played in Qatar I had to let go of a match against Joel Makin as although I felt I could push a bit I knew I was on the verge of getting injured and being side-lined for a while.
“I was very careful not to allow that to happen as I wanted to stay on court, keep playing matches and try and keep making the later rounds. There is no point having one great run and making a final and getting injured and being out for weeks, so I have to be careful.
“But things are getting better, I am getting stronger and I am training better and hopefully I can continue to build on what I achieved at Houston and at Motor City. I want to progress but at the same time I don’t want to put too much pressure on myself.
“So, I take it one match at a time. You can have a bad match and that can be for different reasons, you don’t play well, the other guy has a good match, but it is just one match and then you must move on.
“On the other hand, if you win then you will probably have to go one more round so you need to take it one match at a time and not let things bother you.
“Reaching the top was one of my main goals when I started playing professionally. It didn’t come easy at all, so it feels extra special now that I’m in there among the best players in the world.
“I’m happy that I made it this far and I enjoyed it for a few days and then moved on and focused on my next goal.”
Yet as he delved further into the frustration and inner angst his injury nightmare caused him, the likeable Hesham was impressively candid about how close he came to calling it a day.
Hesham in action at the Houston Open
“I’ve always felt that this is my level (top 10) and I have been so unlucky with injuries on and off and how much stuff has happened to me over such a long period. In some tournaments I was playing I had not even been able to train for them and a few times I was actually on the edge of quitting the sport.
“I was in the top 20 but I knew inside of me that this was not the way I wanted to be, the way I wanted to perform and I asked myself: ‘Is this the way you really want to play for the rest of your career?’ it wasn’t.”
“One match stood out for me, that was about three or four years ago and I think I played Diego [Elias] once and after the match, which I think was a second round [El Gouna International, round 2 2019], I just wasn’t playing at the level I wanted to be at.
“Then I was just scrolling down Twitter, and I opened it and Diego did not say anything bad but he said: ‘I didn’t play my best today but I got the win.’ When I saw it I felt real bad and it was like: ‘Am I that far from these guys?’
“To me it felt like I was not good enough and that hurt me and to be honest I stopped reading the post-match interviews and stuff and I stopped watching these matches as I thought to myself: ‘This is not me playing, this is not the guy I want to see playing.’
“A few years ago I had a win over Diego and I was better in the rankings and at 21 I think my ranking was better even than some of the top players in the meantime.
“So that hurt me really bad and I had to beat him again after that to get my confidence back and I did that [British Open 2019, Round 2].”
Looking back to his run through to the final of the Houston Open, where he was defeated in a four-game title match by World No.1 Ali Farag, Hesham said: “A few years ago I felt like that every time I had a big match coming up or that I had the chance to reach a milestone or a better place in my ranking, I would usually think too much about it and then miss it. I was just determined to give my best and not think about anything else before the match.
“Of course the motives make you push that bit more. But if you look at the bigger picture you need to get to the next round and build and it was very pleasing to back up the win over Marwan by beating Gregoire [Marche].
“In the final with Ali, well honestly I felt I could have done better as my shins were still a problem. Physically I was feeling good, but the shins started to hurt and when that happens they get really stiff and it is hard to move and that makes life very tough. Plus you are in the with one of the best players of the world.
“I managed to play well for the first two games but after that the shins got worse and in the end it went away from me but I felt like I had some chances. What was important for me was that I showed myself and people that I can match those guys and it’s not an easy final like some would say it is. I wanted to at least put him under pressure even if my shins didn’t feel the best and I think I did that.
“I think the win against Marwan (ElShorbagy) pleased me most. As you can see from the head-to-head between Marwan and I it was 5-0 for him going into that match and I knew how tough he would be.
“I had been training well building up to Houston and I just wanted to have a fair crack against these guys like Marwan and show I could compete with them.
“Then after the first game my shins were hurting me and I had to take a pain killer, but I was determined to finish the match as I really felt that I could get him this time and that it would be my day and it was a great feeling to finally get the win over Marwan.”
With Hesham’s next appearance coming at the Windy City Open in a fortnight the man with the machine gun delivery was optimistic his upward trajectory can continue: “I think my best is still ahead and I always have it in my mind that I can improve. If I’m playing my squash and I am physically good enough and playing consistently then I think I can go further in the rankings and compete for the very top spots,” said Hesham.
He continued: “But I don’t want to think too much about the rankings and just concentrate on making progress. For me it is a long road and if you start thinking you want to make top-5 and win this tournament or that it is not good. So, I believe it is about the journey more than that.
“I am fit, playing well, and enjoying what I am doing and I will take it day by day and match by match and see where that takes me. My next focus is Chicago and making sure that I back up what I did in Houston.”