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!