‘I’m super proud of my third title – and of how Nour has come back to play better than ever’
INTERVIEW by ALAN THATCHER (Squash Mad Editor)
Life is good in the Farag household right now. Ali has just claimed his third World Championship title and his wife Nour El Tayeb is enjoying a rapid rise up the rankings after an astonishing return to top form following the birth of their daughter, Farida, less than a year ago.
Pakistani legend Jansher Khan, in an interview with Squash Mad’s RJ Mitchell, said Ali deserves to recognised as one of the all-time greats after winning his third World title.
And Ali himself says Nour is playing better than ever after reaching the semi-finals of the Women’s World Championships and again in El Gouna.
After two brutal tournaments coming back to back, Ali withdrew from this week’s Necker Mauritius Open with an injury, which is not surprising considering his recent match schedule.
In the closing stages of the World Championships he beat Marwan ElShorbagy, Tarek Momen and Mohamed ElShorbagy in the quarters, semi-finals and final.
A few days later the players moved 276 miles south to the Red Sea resort of El Gouna, where Ali again beat Marwan the quarters but this time lost to Mostafa Asal in the semi-finals. Asal went on to beat Paul Coll in the final to claim his second Major following his success in last year’s US Open.
I caught up with Ali for a quick chat a few days ago as he took stock of a momentous chapter in his career, and that of his wife.
It was also a double demonstration of Egypt’s position as the dominant nation in squash, not only in terms of results on the court but also in the business of promoting events of the highest quality, with constant innovation to keep spectators entertained and engaged.
AT: Ali, what are your thoughts after winning your third World Championship and returning to No.1 in the world?
Ali: Obviously I was so happy to win the World Championships for the third time and the icing on the cake was to get back to world number one as well.
Those achievements felt amazing and I always thought that it would not make much of a difference if I won one or won three, but actually now that we’re talking that I’m in the same conversation as the likes of Ramy Ashour and Nick Matthew it is an unreal feeling. I mean I would have never thought of it, so I’m super, super happy.
AT: Alongside your third win, how did you feel seeing Nour El Sherbini win her sixth world title?
Ali: Well, obviously my wife is on the women’s tour and I follow it very closely, and obviously I’m very biased to my wife and I believe she is and can be the best player in the world.
But if we talk about Nour El Sherbini, with what she’s achieved already at the age of only 26, she is the best of our generation, men and women, and arguably the best in the game historically.
We can talk about Jansher, Jahangir and Nicol David and all the greats, but she’s definitely up there in the mix. I am so impressed by her consistency and how much she can raise her level at the crucial times, the crucial events, and the crucial points.
And, as well, how great she is as a person, just everything about her. She really is a champion and everything she does shows that she really is a great champion we have to admire, so I have nothing but absolute respect to her.
AT: Let’s talk about your wife Nour’s return to such phenomenal form.
Ali: Nour is a phenomenon for me. By that I mean what she’s achieved in such a short span of time. When she decided that she wanted to come back my main conversation with her was that she had to be patient and she had to accept the truth she was going to lose to people that she was not used to losing to, and that was going to be a long road.
To be fair she’s cut through the ranks a lot quicker than I expected and I’m not even sure I was sure she was going to make it back to her level before she stopped playing. But I can confidently say that her level is even higher now.
It’s all about consistency from now on to be able to replicate those performances from tournament to tournament, but she’s already done that for the past for the seven events she’s played so far.
If you think about it she’s only lost to Nour El Sherbini three times, Nouran Gohar twice and Rowan Elaraby and Nele Gillis, so she’s only losing to top, top players. And she’s beaten some other top players along the way as well so it’s really impressive and I’m really excited for her, also looking ahead to next season.
AT: Let’s talk about the significance of two 21-year-olds, Mostafa and Hania El Hammamy, winning in El Gouna and what message that sends to everyone in the game.
Ali: I think it’s one of the reasons why our sport is very exciting is that we don’t have one player who wins it all, really, especially on the men’s side. The level of women’s squash has increased dramatically, and I’m a big fan of squash and I’m a big fan of their game.
I mean, I watched their games continuously but if you look at the past couple of years it’s only been Nouran, Nour and Hania winning the events.
On our side (men’s) this year you’ve seen Mostafa, Diego, myself, Paul, Mohamed ElShorbagy and lots of players winning different events, which adds to the excitement of our sport.
It means that you don’t really know who’s going to win and there is always some people coming through from a younger age group like Mostafa and Hania, and obviously they’re not up and coming any more. These days they have established themselves as some of the top, top players.
But you’ve got players like Youssef Ibrahim and Victor Crouin, and lots of other players coming through on the women’s side as well, so it’s great for our sport really and it shows how diverse it is. Maybe not in terms of the number of countries yet at least, but in terms of characters and different age groups it’s a very exciting time for squash.
AT: How did it feel playing at the National Museum of Egyptian Civilization for the World Championships and El Gouna Conference and Cultural Center the week after, at venues that continue to showcase Egypt as the beating heart of world squash and highlight the work behind the scenes from guys like Karim Darwish and Amr Mansi?
Ali: Well, I mean to be fair, those are two very different tournaments, but they are equally as great. You know, the venue at the Museum was second to none. It’s like nothing I’ve seen before, really.
The entertainment value that was given to all the spectators, whether it be a one-year-old kid to an 80-year-old person, you could find entertainment for all age groups or genders.
Obviously, most of the people that are coming to these events are diehard squash fans and yes, like any other big event the sport is the main spectacle, but you also want to enjoy the experience and at the World Champs they really achieved that. So kudos to Karim Darwish and CIB for such a successful World Championships.
And then, of course El Gouna has got a very special place in our hearts as Egyptians, but as players in general because it’s really the main reason there are now so many squash tournaments in Egypt – because (promoter) Amr Mansi, he kick-started it all by just grabbing the attention of the private sector to be involved in our sport.
He has increased squash’s popularity in Egypt and now, with the 10th edition, it shows how well it’s been going so El Gouna is a brilliant place and now with the new venue everything about this is perfect really.
So I’m overly grateful for these two promoters for what they’ve done for our sport and I can’t wait to play there again hopefully in the coming years.
AT: Finally, your thoughts on Mohamed ElShorbagy’s decision to switch national allegiance from Egypt to England?
Ali: I don’t really have much to say as it’s a personal decision and everyone knows what’s best for them, so there’s nothing for me to comment on.
AT: Thank you, Ali. Congratulations and best wishes to you and Nour from the whole Squash Mad team.
Pictures courtesy of PSA World Tour