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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