Mohamed El Shorbagy vividly remembers the day he became a squash world No. 1. It was last October at the US Open in Philadelphia and he was about to face the man he was trying to unseat at the top of the world rankings – Gregory Gaultier. He had to beat the Frenchman in the semi-finals in order to take his place.
The Egyptian couldn’t get any sleep the night before, knowing he was on the cusp of achieving a lifelong dream. Elshorbagy can recall his nerves from when he was having his morning hit with countryman and former world No1 Amr Shabana before his semi-final.
“For the first time of my life I was shaking on court,” Elshorbagy explains. “Shabana knew what I was going through and is experienced enough to understand these kind of situations. He had a semi-final that day too but that hit changed from two players hitting with each other to get ready for their evening matches, to Shabana coaching me on what I had to do and how to handle that pressure.
“That’s how nice of a person he is and that’s why he will always be my hero. Every word he said was just so right.”
Shabana’s words of wisdom did the trick and Elshorbagy went on to beat Gaultier 3-0 – the first time he had beaten the Frenchman in straight games – to secure his position at squash’ summit.
“When I won that match it was the happiest moment of my life and my mum was there to share that moment with me as well. We hadn’t had the world No. 1 spot before that day in Egypt for a year and a half so it felt great to get it back for my country again,” says the 24-year-old.
Elshorbagy had set himself three goals for the 2014/2015 season and getting to world No1 was the first he crossed off that list.
He beat Shabana in the US Open final to capture a fourth-consecutive title and went into the World Championship – his second goal for the season – in November in the best shape possible. But the Alexandrian’s winning streak was halted in the final by Ramy Ashour, who was the last Egyptian to hold the No1 ranking before him.
Elshorbagy and Ashour have formed a thrilling rivalry and their showdowns have become a hallmark of the sport. The former is renowned for his power game and the latter is celebrated for his artistry. Their contrasting styles and never-say-die attitudes make for an incredible match-up every time they face off and the World Championship final in Qatar was no different.
It was Ashour who triumphed 3-2 leaving Elshorbagy still searching for a first world crown. The defeat to Ashour meant that Elshorbagy became even more desperate to accomplish the third goal on his list – winning the British Open.
Arguably the most prestigious honour in squash, the British Open is the season-closer, contested in May. Elshorbagy arrived there still at world No1 and feeling the pressure of being the hunted man on tour. The Egyptian picked up a hamstring problem in his opening match and says he almost pulled out of the tournament in the second round.
But he chose to continue through the pain and his emotional reaction to winning the British Open a few days later, with a gruelling 3-2 win over an in-form Gaultier, was a clear sign of the pressure and strain he was under.
“I was having lunch with Gaultier two weeks after it in Alexandria and he told me ‘when I’m playing in that kind of form not many players can beat me’” he says. “Saying something like that shows the respect we both have for each other and it shows how hard I had to work to win that final.”
This August, Elshorbagy enters his 10th consecutive month as world No1 and when the new rankings come out in September, a fellow Egyptian, Raneem El Welily will end Nicol David’s nine-year reign atop the women’s rankings. It will be the first time in history an Egyptian man and woman will sit at the summit of both squash rankings and Elshorbagy could not feel prouder.
On the men’s side, eight of the world’s top- 20 are Egyptians – including Elshorbagy’s brother Marwan who is at No13. Asked for an explanation as to why the Egyptians have been so dominant, Elshorbagy says: “I think because you always had someone good in the sport to look up to.
“A long time ago we had (Abdelfattah) Aboutaleb and then we had Gamal Awad. I remember before I had my first World Juniors in Switzerland, I used to train at the Gezira Club in the morning and the evening and all the big guys were training in the morning like Amr Shabana and Karim Darwish, they were world No1 and No3 at the time.
“I remember watching this as a kid, I wanted to be like them. We would learn by just watching them in training. And before my World Juniors they trained with me as well so getting that kind of training at 17 years old makes a huge difference.”
Elshorbagy worries about the future of Egypt in the sport, though, and feels there isn’t an influx of young talent coming through.
“There are so many good coaches who have left the country (Egypt) unfortunately,” he says. “A coach like Amir Wagih who had so much experience was very useful for us in Egypt, a coach like Hisham El Attar has gone to the United States, he was so good.
“Anthony Hill, an ex-world No. 5, left after the revolution. Those three coaches were the main coaches that brought up lots of generations in Egypt. We’ve lost the World Juniors two years in a row now.
“And at the same time colleges in the States are starting to offer lots of scholarships to a lot of players and when you go to college in the States it kind of keeps you away from playing professionally as well.”
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Egypt and England have been the most dominant two nations in squash in recent years. The Egyptians are known for their flair, while the English rely on consistency.
Having grown up in Egypt but trained in England since 15, Elshorbagy has combined the best of both worlds. Moving to the UK as a young teenager was not easy though.
“It was tough at the beginning because I was in a French school when I was in Alexandria so I couldn’t speak English when I first came to England,” he recalls. “I went alone as well and I wasn’t used to being in a boarding school – I was very close to my family. After the first year I asked my mother to come and then my brother came as well so it got easier having my family there.”
He’s met younger brother Marwan twice this season, which is less than ideal for two people who spend all their time together and are often room-mates at tournaments.
“It’s something that we have to get used to because he’s rising in the rankings,” he explains. “I think it will be good for the sport, something new. We haven’t had two brothers playing at the top of the rankings for a very long time and I do think it’s a rivalry that would do good things for the sport.”