Mo’s the perfect player, because he’s always been willing to learn from his rivals
By ANDY WHIPP – Squash Mad Columnist
I have always been a big fan of Mohamed ElShorbagy, both as a player and as a person. His accomplishments are bonkers – and he’s only 30!
He’s won 43 titles and spent 49 months at World No.1. He’s currently fifth on the all-time win list.
Here’s a briefish history of his awesomeness …
Born 12 January 1991 in Alexandria, Egypt, ElShorbagy flew up the world rankings after joining the PSA in 2006 as a 15-year old schoolboy under the tutelage of the legendary Jonah Barrington.
The Alexandria-born star rose to prominence in 2007 after he became the first player in history to secure a maiden PSA World Tour title at a five-star event. He then entered the record books again soon after, becoming only the second man after Ramy Ashour to win the World Junior Championship twice when he triumphed in 2008 and 2009.
The Egyptian came close to winning the senior World Championship in 2012 but lost out to compatriot Ashour 3-2 in the final.
In 2013 he claimed his first World Series win in the Qatar Classic and exhibited some supreme form throughout the 2014 campaign, winning five events including World Series tournaments in Hong Kong and the 2014 US Opens.
The latter in particular was significant because it elevated ElShorbagy to World No.1 for the first time in his career, courtesy of his victory over Gregory Gaultier in the semi-final, becoming the fourth youngest player to reach the milestone. He lost a second World Championship final against Ashour which was dubbed one of the greatest squash matches ever.
A spellbinding run of form from December 2015 to April 2016 saw ElShorbagy dominate the PSA World Tour, winning six successive World Series titles, including defending his crown at the British Open after ending a four-match winless run against Ashour.
During that period, ElShorbagy also broke Ashour’s record for the highest ever World Rankings points average in April, a record he then shattered again a month later.
ElShorbagy suffered a slump in form during the 2016-17 season with the former World No.1 experiencing his longest title drought in three years. The Egyptian lost in the semi-final of the British Open to England’s Nick Matthew and then exited at the quarter final stage of the El Gouna International Squash Open after defeat by his younger brother, Marwan.
However, the tide turned and the Egyptian’s 2017-18 season got off to an unbelievable start, winning seven of his first nine tournaments.
After losing the World No.1 spot to Ali Farag in March 2019, ElShorbagy bounced back with tournament wins at the Grasshopper Cup and the British Open. ‘The Beast’ had a strong 2019-2020 campaign, winning several more titles.
ElShorbagy claimed the World No.1 spot for a fourth time in his career in February following his victory at Grand Central Terminal, and backed it up with a win over his predecessor, Ali Farag, in the final of the St. James’s Place Canary Wharf Classic in London, in what was the final men’s match on the PSA World Tour before the enforced COVID-19 suspension.
He won the Manchester Open on 22 September 2020 after 192 days of recess due to the COVID-19 pandemic, to claim his 42nd PSA title, and title no.43 came last month in the El Gouna Classic.
I’m not here to list all of his achievements, but to talk instead about what I believe makes his so great.
I remember seeing Shorbagy when he was 16 and taking note after I watched him beat Scott Handley in a BSPA event. Scott was double Shorbagy’s age, equipped with speed, accuracy and experience. It really was an impressive win for the young Egyptian. Back then I recognised Mohamed’s obvious ability but his squash was erratic and messy, like most juniors.
His technique was unlike any I’d seen – short and fast, but again slightly messy, in definite need of refining. And then he changed over the course of the next four years. This leads me on to what is most impressive about Shorbagy – he constantly learns and he adapts.
He reminds me of Cristiano Ronaldo. Ronaldo came to Manchester United as a skinny youngster who had obvious skill. But it wasn’t good enough. He quickly learned what he needed to change and he did it. Ronaldo appeared after the summer break as a new man. The boy seemingly grew up overnight. He bulked up, learned to use his dribbling skill to greater effect, being aware of time and place and learned to deliver positive results for him and his team-mates. Long gone was the selfish, skinny kid who would look good but with little end product.
Throughout his career Ronaldo has changed the way he plays in order to remain as effective as possible. He has now developed into more of a ‘classic poacher’ striker. He has constantly made assessments of himself, his opponents and his surroundings and plotted an appropriate training regime so he can remain as prolific as possible.
ElShorbagy has done this throughout his 15 years on the world squash tour. He stays ahead of the curve. He constantly adjusts.
I consider his technique to be pretty close to perfect. It is low, short and simple, very little can go wrong. It is completely solid and robust. He made subtle changes to his junior technique that enabled him to compete at the highest level at such an early age. He couldn’t beat the likes of Nick Matthew just by running fast and hitting hard. He needed a technique that was robust and would never fail him so he could hit quality shots under extreme pressure.
His final against Ramy in the 2012 World Open was impressive and a great match, but the 2014 final was another level. Both players improved their quality since their last World Open final. Then, I consider the 2015 El Gouna International final between the two players to be the greatest match I’ve ever seen.
I know Ramy just came out on top in all these matches winning each by a couple of points only, but the quality in Mohamed’s squash from 2012 to 2015 was much, much better. He had learned and he had improved. I watch him now and he’s definitely a much better player than he was in that 2012 World Open final.
Like Federer in tennis, he’s a squash scholar. He loves to analyse and learn, and adapt. He learns from his competitors, and his rivalries. He’s had some massive rivalries, and one by one has seen them move away from squash, but not before he could learn everything they had to offer, through his personal matches with them and through his studies of them. He’s even happy to seek them out for advice. That takes serious maturity and nous to ask his rivals for help.
Dozens of his matches with Ramy Ashour, Nick Matthew and Gregory Gaultier will go down in history. It’s even possible he’s seen his rivalry with Karim Gawad come and go (I hope not). He’s currently in an incredible to-and-fro battle with fellow Egyptian Ali Farag. And I think we all know he’s going to have a few years where he and Mostafa Asal will have many meetings in major finals and semi-finals.
He’s certainly not had everything his own way off the court either. Last year he had one major issue with the PSA, which meant ElShorbgay not only was forced to miss some major events, but he was also punished by the PSA – and all this led to him losing his World No.1 ranking to Farag.
Egyptian males aged between 19-34 face national conscription. Athletes and sportsmen based overseas, like Bristol-based ElShorbagy, can avoid the call-up by paying USD$50,000 every time they return home to Egypt. This is an unofficial deal the government have with business and sport stars, although Liverpool legend Mo Salah has been given special dispensation by the Prime Minister.
ElShorbagy made the PSA aware of his situation several weeks before an event in Chicago. All top eight players are obliged to play every PSA Platinum Event. ElShorbagy informed the PSA he could not play the events that season in Egypt and explained his valid reasons.
He received no reply before he had to travel to Chicago. His reply did not arrive until the night before his major quarter-final match with Paul Coll. He was to be handed a ‘disciplinary zero’ for any major events missed, regardless of them being in Egypt where he could not travel. These ‘disciplinary zero’ scores are massively harmful to a player’s ranking. This guaranteed he would lose his World No.1 ranking. And he lost to Paul Coll.
Mohamed very reasonably said: “I can live with the decision but how can they tell me the day before a major quarter-final match? I couldn’t sleep before my match. The way it was handled was very unprofessional.”
Mohamed ElShorbagy also outlined a severe conflict of interest within one of the PSA decision makers. The chairman of the PSA, Ziad Al Turki, also privately sponsors Ali Farag – the one player who would gain the most from the PSA’s ruling.
Mohamed accepted and moved on – which unfortunately was into COVID lockdown. And we know what he did, he came back onto the squash scene and won the first event back, the Manchester Open.
He’s just got an absolutely perfect personality and attitude for success in an individual sport. We see it over and over again. Not only does he have the drive to train brutally hard, day-in and day-out as is required to be great at squash, but he’s sport smart. This is his true power, as I’ve tried to outline here. This is what makes him so great.
One last thing. He’s a nice guy! He talks about squash when he’s retired and would be happy to see players like Asal and Diego Elias reach new heights. He’s not too proud or stuck-up to train with ‘lesser’ players.
He’s trained a lot with Joel Makin over lockdown, we know this, but he will not exclusively train with other top ten players.
He knows the benefits of training with a range of players within the world top 100, and will take coaching lessons from local coaches. He doesn’t only frequent Hadrian Stiff in Bristol, but Mike Harris, in Exeter, has also begun to play a major role in keeping The Beast sharp.
I think we’ve been lucky to have such a great player as Mohamed ElShorbagy. We can all learn so much from him, as he has learned from other players.
How Andy can help your club
AWsome Sports creator Andy Whipp is now offering squash consultancy / sports club consultancy. Given his many years’ experience of all things squash at every level of the sport, and after countless people asking for his advice on a range of squash and club matters, he has decided to use his expertise to offer a FREE squash consultancy service.
AWsome Sports are happy to help with league and club committee ideas and decisions, as well as squash advice to parents and professionals.
So if you need some general advice, inspiration, fresh ideas, or a mediator for your club or league committee debates – please contact Andy at [email protected] for more information.