Ramy Ashour: Squash star talks battles on and off the court

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Trophy haul: Ashour has won nearly everything there is to win in squash.

They call him “The Artist” and it’s not because he has a surprisingly good singing voice.

It’s because of the way he paints the four walls of a squash court with inconceivable shots that have driven many – including the BBC – to wonder if he is the greatest racquet sports player on the planet.

It sounds like a bold verdict, but spending a few minutes on YouTube watching videos of Ramy Ashour would quickly help one understand how such a statement has become associated with the Egyptian phenom.

Former world No1 James Willstrop, who dedicated a whole chapter in his book to discuss Ashour, calls him a “complete enigma”, Egypt’s former national coach, Amir Wagih, once described him as a “gift from God”, while the official PSA (Professional Squash Association) website says he is “one of the most technically-gifted players ever to play the game”.

From his exceptional movement to his instinctual anticipation to his surreal shot-making and above all his endearing character and charisma, Ashour has managed to breathe new life into a sport that has always struggled to attract the masses.

Ashour, 26, enjoyed lots of success early on in his career, winning the World Open in 2008 and becoming the youngest world No1 in 26 years when he reached the summit of the rankings in 2010.

But nothing can compare to the incredible stretch of 19 months from mid-2012 to January 2014 that saw Ashour take the tour by storm.

The star went undefeated for 52 consecutive matches, returning to the world No1 seat, claiming a second World Open crown and becoming the first Egyptian to triumph at the prestigious British Open in 47 years.

In the process, he etched his name in the history books by accumulating the highest points average ever recorded.

Asked to reflect on that unfathomable streak, Ashour speaks with the same speed and intensity he exhibits on the court.

“I was kind of shocked the moment I realised I hadn’t lost for like 40-something matches. Someone told me, or I read it somewhere, I can’t remember,” the Egyptian told Sport360° at the Nad Al Sheba Sports Tournament. “I was kind of shocked, kind of happy, kind of pressured, I started feeling the responsibility, started feeling that I wanted to take it further and at the same time I was like ‘okay, it’s good, if you didn’t do more than this you’re still fine’.

“But then I thought ‘why can’t I take it further?’ You know this constant mental battle? I kept it going as much as I could and I ended up with 52 straight wins or something. So thank God, it’s something I’m very proud of and hopefully I’ll try to pursue this again.”

When he tries to explain how he mustered such a winning run, Ashour becomes even more animated. In his own words, he really had no choice.

He says the troubles he was experiencing off court drove him to focus on succeeding on it.

“It was one of the hardest years in my life. I had a lot of challenges outside the court. The kind of challenges which would break me or make me. Things which can make life really bitter for you and it’s only up to you to make it better. And my only way out of this whole burden was to win and to keep my spirit up. And was to enjoy the pain so much, enjoy digging in, enjoy this drenched feeling of having so much sweat on court,” he says.

It is that desperation that seems to be the common driver throughout Ashour’s career.

He has long been hampered by injuries, initially to the knee and more recently to the hamstring and the constant struggle has led him to hire French legend, Thierry Lincou, as his fitness coach.

“I struggled since I was 14 years old with a lot of injuries but I’ve always been too desperate to get through every hurdle,” he says. “I’ve been doing lots of wrong things towards my body. I’ve killed it. So what we’ve started working on is doing the right stuff to serve my game.”

He also explains how squash is above all a mental struggle and considers himself his toughest rival and admits the game often takes over his entire being, so much so he can’t switch off.

“I don’t think I have self-motivation, I strive to find it. I’ve always felt that it’s very easy to get into this kind of depression state,” explains Ashour.

“Maybe it’s just me, or maybe it’s common with other athletes, but I’ve been in depression states before and it was very hard that when I got out of it I appreciated the high points so much more.

“I’m always trying not to get caught up in criticism or praise. That’s my battle, I’m just trying to find my consistency. Okay, praise is great, it gives you confidence. So is criticism, it’s good as well because it makes you talk to yourself, it makes you more self-conscious so I’m just trying to take both positively as much as I can.”

Looking forward, Ashour says staying healthy is his top priority but he also has his eye on a third World Open title when he heads to Doha this December.

Off the court he has bigger dreams.

He lost a big battle when squash’s bid to be included in the 2020 Olympics was rejected for a third time by the IOC – a campaign which had Ashour as its main ambassador.

That hasn’t stopped him from working on bringing back the famous Ahram tournament, which used to be staged on a glass court at the foot of the Pyramids in Egypt.

“There isn’t a sport in the world where you can put a glass court at the foot of Burj Khalifa, for example, behind the Pyramids, on the Hong Kong harbour, Grand Central Station, the Eiffel Tower, and so on. There aren’t that many sports in the world where you can do this.”

Quick shots with Ramy

On his most surprising winning shot: I was playing Gregory Gaultier in the final of the Tournament of Champions. In the fourth game… it was a long rally, he smashed the quickest cross court ever – and I saw nothing but my ball going on the other side of the court. I didn’t expect it, no one expected it and the people kept clapping for a long time, I held the racquet afterwards strumming it like a guitar… I was like wow!

On where he gets his inspiration: My mum, her perseverance, my dad, his maturity and I’ve been taking lots of things from lots of other people. It all comes back to how I grew up, what I’ve been through with my family, with everything myself.

His proudest achievement: The British Open last year. I had a lot of challenges outside as well and I had to win. So for myself that was something very heroic for me.

Last time he felt complete despair on the court: The World Open last year in Manchester when I had to withdraw against Nick Matthew after the second game. That was a complete state of despair, it was the worst.

Last time he felt complete joy on the court: The World Open in 2012 in Qatar. Complete joy, there was nothing missing!

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From Arthur Ashe Stadium to the Darren Sammy National Cricket Ground - Stadia named after sporting greats

A host of top stadia has been renamed after sporting stars.

Darren Sammy's success in captaining the West Indies to the World Twenty20 title has been recognised by his native St Lucia after it was announced that the island's main cricket ground would be renamed in his honour.

The Beausejour Cricket Ground will now be known as the Darren Sammy National Cricket Ground, with one of the stands to be named in honour of fellow St Lucian and Twenty20 winner Johnson Charles.

And from the new Darren Sammy National Cricket Ground to the Rod Laver Arena in Melbourne, Sport360 picks out other stadia that has been re-named or firstly named after famed sports men and women around the world.

Are there some grounds and stadiums we have missed? Use #360fans on Twitter and let us know!

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INTERVIEW: Raneem El Welily - Fighting to preserve her status

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Taking over: Raneem El Welily thanks Nicol David (r) for raising the bar.

Almost a year ago, a tearful Raneem El Welily walked off the court at her home club, Wadi Degla, in Cairo after squandering four match points en route to a heart-wrenching five-game defeat to Nicol David in the final of the squash World Championship.

The then-25-year-old came ever so close to denying the beast that is David an astonishing eighth world title. El Welily was up a game and 6-2, and led 10-6 in the fourth, but ended up losing to the most dominant female player squash – and probably sport – has ever seen, 11-5 in the fifth.

The agony of falling just short is a feeling the Egyptian admits she will never forget.

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But it is also an experience that helped El Welily become Egypt’s first-ever women’s world No1 nine months later, in September, ending David’s nine-year reign at the top of the sport.

“Losing this painfully was never a scenario in my head,” El Welily told Sport360°.

“It was a very, very hard point of my life. Honestly it only takes me seconds to remember how it feels. Walking off the court, I’ll never forget that moment.

“But I never have any regrets. I know that I definitely did something wrong and I learnt a lot from it. I remember I was so angry and told myself ‘I can’t lose to Nicol again. If I lost to her in that way, it means she’s not better than me, and I must beat her next time’.

“So believe it or not this is what motivated me to get to No1.”

Egypt has a huge squash tradition and while several men have occupied the top spot, including the current world No1 Mohamed El Shorbagy, David’s monopoly on the women’s side meant that when El Welily finally surpassed the Malaysian legend, she was the first female from the North African nation to reach the summit of her sport.

She had known since June that mathematically she would finally leapfrog David when the September rankings came out, but El
Welily refused to believe it until she saw it with her own eyes.

And in September it happened. After 109 consecutive months at the top, David had a ‘-1’ printed next to her ranking. The Malaysian queen was dethroned for the first time since 2006.

“Growing up, she had always been world No1. She’s been this perfect picture of an athlete, very disciplined, very decent, very humble, mentally she’s very strong, physically she’s even stronger. She’s unbelievable,” El Welily says.

“Nicol was No1, winning 99 per cent of her matches throughout the entire year. She’d barely lose one or two matches a year, and it would be a final or something, never a first round.

“We’d reach world No2, myself or Laura Massaro or Jenny Duncalf, throughout the past seven years, and not one of us managed to surpass Nicol.

“We’d get to No2, beat her once or twice and that’s it. She forced us to improve our game and reach this level. Without her, the level in the sport would have been completely different. She’s a legend of course. To surpass her in the rankings was a miracle.”

El Welily officially got the top spot while she was playing a tournament in China.

She somehow held it together to take the title that week despite the enormity of what had just happened.

“It was really hard to stay focused on the fact that I had a match coming up and not enjoy being No1,” she admits.

“The day the news came out, I had a match, so it was almost impossible.”

While it is impossible not to be proud of what she has accomplished, El Welily somehow has this feeling that she needs to prove she is worthy of the No1 spot.

On top: Raneem ended David’s 109-month reign at world No1.

In her mind, her ascent had more to do with maths than anything else and that she had a little help from the rest of the squash tour to get to the top.

“I have to admit that I didn’t achieve it on my own. Starting last December, I was runner-up at Worlds and she (Nicol) won it,” says El Welily.

“After that, she lost in the quarters to Alison Waters. In March I beat her in the final in Chicago. In May she lost to Massaro (in the semis of the British Open), and in Alexandria she lost to Omneya Abdel Kawy in the semi-finals.”

“So I didn’t reach No1 by beating Nicole six times. I got to No1 by winning four titles, three of those events Nicol lost in the semis or quarters to someone else. I beat her only once throughout the entire season.”

Now that she is at the top, El Welily’s goal remains the same: to try and win as many tournaments as possible. She would love to enjoy the kind of dominance David has had but admits that “nine years is too long and too much. I don’t think I have nine more years in me for squash. To have it the same way Nicol had it? I believe that’s impossible. Mentally it’s really hard.”

While her first tournament as world No1 saw her take the trophy in China, she hasn’t made a final in any of the three events she’s contested since.

From the outside, it’s easy to assume that the pressure of being No1 has got to her but El Welily insists that is not the case.

“I’ve had issues in my training for the past five, six months and it’s only starting to show now and I’ve started to fix them,” she explains.

Her coach had hand surgery in May and she had to train with a replacement coach for six months. It affected her rhythm but they’re back practicing together again and she believes she’ll be on track soon.

“I’m happy I hung on for five months without him but at the end I really needed him back,” she added.

She has the World Championship coming up next month in Kuala Lumpur and while it remains the one big item she is yet to check off her bucket list, El Welily says getting back to her best form is her priority and that she won’t be putting pressure on herself.

There are five Egyptian women in the top-10 in the world rankings, and five more on the men’s side, yet El Welily feels her sport is still not getting the attention it deserves back home.

“Coverage happens when there is a huge event. But the idea that as a sport, we’re good and it needs to be on TV the entire time, that is not happening. We’re dominating the sport so why don’t TV channels air all these matches?” she asks.

The frustration is not just with her home media. Six weeks ago, squash was snubbed by the 2020 Tokyo Olympics following yet another failed bid to be included in the Games.

“From within, as players and as an association and as a game, we have really improved on so many things just for the sake of the Olympics. Which is good. We’re happy that we have reached this point,” she says.

“It’s time to put the Olympics aside because it is clearly not a matter of criteria. They kept asking us to do this and that to improve, and we did it all yet they didn’t choose us.

“So on some level, I feel like ‘okay, we’ve improved and it’s for our own good, not for their good’.

“We’ve improved, so why stop now? We’re growing, expanding our fan base.

“Many more people are following squash now and that’s really good for the sport. Whether we make it to the Olympics or not, I don’t care anymore.”

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