INTERVIEW: El Sherbini proves age is just a number

Squash's youngest women’s world champion Nour El Sherbini opens up to Sport360's Reem Abulleil about balancing the sport with university and how she’ll hold onto her No1 ranking.

Reem Abulleil
by Reem Abulleil
19th May 2016

article:19th May 2016

El Sherbini is the first Egyptian woman to win
the World Championships.
El Sherbini is the first Egyptian woman to win the World Championships.

When Nour El Sherbini executed a deft backhand drop shot to seal a tremendous comeback victory over Laura Massaro and become the youngest ever women’s World Champion last month, she turned towards her father – who was leaping in the stands – in utter disbelief, overwhelmed by the magnitude of what she had just achieved.

The 20-year-old climbed back from a two-game deficit to beat Massaro to become the first Egyptian woman to win the World Championships, and take over the world No1 spot from the Brit she had just upended.

The mix of relief and shock on El Sherbini’s face said it all. And to think she almost never even made it to the World Championships to begin with. At Borg El Arab airport in Alexandria, El Sherbini, along with her Egyptian team-mate Heba El Torky and chef de mission Hany Hamouda, were stopped by a passport control officer who told them they didn’t have the right letter, issued from the Ministry of Youth and Sport, which would allow them to travel to Malaysia.

They had a letter from the ministry, but it did not specifically address the passport control authorities and the officer refused to budge. As El Sherbini frantically called every person she could think of to try and find a
solution, her luggage was taken off the plane, the gate was closed and it looked like it was game over.

The World Championship was less than 48 hours away, the flight from Alexandria to Kuala Lumpur is more than 12 hours long – not taking transit into account – and El Sherbini was stuck at the airport both helpless and frustrated.

She somehow managed to get the phone number of the Minister of Youth and Sport, Khaled Abdel Aziz, who miraculously fixed the situation, allowing the eventual World Champion to get on the plane.

Abdel Aziz was the first congratulatory call El Sherbini received upon winning the title. With individual sports typically ignored in the football-mad Egypt, the country’s squash heroes rarely get the attention or recognition they deserve. But the reaction to El Sherbini’s exploits in Malaysia went viral online and she admits she never thought her triumph would resonate with so many people. Even Egyptian president Abdel Fattah el-Sisi gave her a nod in his latest speech.

“I really could not believe the overwhelming response,” El Sherbini told Sport360 ahead of her participation in next week’s PSA Dubai World Series Finals (May 24-28), where she leads the top-eight field at Burj Park.

“The number of calls I received, people who have nothing to do with squash, so many people were so happy for what I managed to achieve and that really meant the world to me.

“The fact that people actually valued what I have done and that they are happy for me – that was a huge surprise. It’s the first time in my life I get this kind of reaction, just huge.”

Not many athletes can pinpoint the moment that shaped their future careers. Progress is often gradual, not sudden, and self-belief is something many spend years learning to acquire.

Not El Sherbini, though. She remembers vividly the moment she realised she should pursue a career in squash.

“I won the World Championship for Under-19s when I was 13 years old and that was the turning point for my entire life,” she says of the time she became the youngest-ever World Junior Champion in Chennai in 2009.

“That’s when I started making changes in my life, it’s when I began dedicating my life to squash and started playing on the seniors’ tour.”

More from Nour

  • On next week’s PSA Dubai World Series Finals at Burj Park - I’m really excited for this tournament. The venue is so cool and this tournament is not just big for us, it’s also big for squash as a whole.
  • On next year’s World Championships offering equal prize money - I never would have imagined that would ever happen and that we’d get equal prize money. It’s something huge for us and it’s great for squash.
  • On whether the legendary Nicol David will come back? - Nicol is a legend and will always be a legend. I’ve played with her four times in a row recently, and every time I felt she was getting better. They have changed the tin height from 19 inches to 17 last year and Nicol struggled a bit to adapt to the 17”. But now, I can see that she’s coming back stronger.
  • On whether she’ll see the day where squash is finally an Olympic sport - I dream of the day it happens and that I’d still be playing. I don’t know why the Olympics keep snubbing squash but I think it’s more political than anything else.

She had also won the British Junior Open that year and turned pro soon after, as a 13-year-old. Three years later, she cracked the top-10 for the first time after reaching the seniors British Open final – the youngest
female ever to do so. In 2013, she lost her first World Championship final, incidentally to Massaro. It’s been a roller coaster ever since – a ride that also saw her become the first Egyptian woman to lift the British Open title last March.

“Since I was a little girl, I felt like I was always put in situations that were bigger than me. As a kid, with every good win, I’d end up playing in a bigger tournament with players who were much older than me. So since I was a child, I’ve always been used to looking ahead and searching for something more,” she explained.

“In squash, I’m always challenging myself before I’m challenging others.

“Even in practice, I would tell myself, ‘this is so hard but I can do it’. That has taught me so much in squash and in life.”

El Sherbini is not your average professional athlete. While most players will go on holiday when they wrap up this season at the PSA Dubai World Series Finals, El Sherbini will fly straight to Alexandria to sit her final exams at university.

She is into her second year of pursuing a degree in media management at the Arab Academy for Science, Technology & Maritime Transport, juggling both her squash career and studies at the same time. It is a balancing act she struggled with at first which had led to a difficult 2014-2015 season.

She says she worked hard both physically and mentally in the offseason, which was the key to her meteoric rise this year.

El Sherbini first picked up a squash racquet when she was six, following in the footsteps of her older brother Omar, but she admits, the main reason she even dreamt of making it this far were her Egyptian compatriots that made waves before her.

While Egyptian men have been dominating the sport for the past several years, it is only last year that Egypt witnessed its first women’s world No1 in Raneem El Welily.

“When I was young, had I not watched Omneya Abdelkawy and Raneem El Welily playing squash, I would not have loved the sport nor picked it up. On the women’s side, it’s true that we’ve become more successful a bit later than the men, it just took us some time but now we’re on top of the world,” she beamed.

El Welily struggled after ending Nicol David’s nine-year reign at world No1 last year, and was unable to hold on to her spot at the top for long. El Sherbini hopes she can avoid a fate similar to that of her close friend and fellow Alexandrian.

“I think Raneem put too much pressure on herself, that she was world No1 so she had to win, and that was the mistake that she made and that’s why she wasn’t performing the same,” says El Sherbini.

“For me, I don’t want to think that way. I want to focus on one thought, which is that I am playing to enjoy squash because I love squash.

“I’m not going to put pressure on myself. I lived with Raneem through that experience and I don’t want to make the same mistake that she did.”

Having achieved so much already, is there any worry of losing steam or motivation?

El Sherbini responds: “Losing is the worst feeling so I don’t ever want to feel that way especially that last year, things weren’t going my way at all. So I don’t want to feel that way again and I want to keep moving forward. I want to stay at number one for as long as I can and I don’t feel done at all, I feel like it’s just the beginning.”