The Egyptians are coming

SH19770In part two of his Player Profiles, Matthew Lombardi looks at some of the Egyptians who will be thrilling us in Bellevue …

Squash is an international sport, with world-class competitors hailing from around the globe, but the greatest concentration of talent is in Egypt. Five of the top 10 players, and 14 of the top 50, are Egyptian, including world #1 Mohamed Elshorbagy and the defending world champion Ramy Ashour.

The Rise of the Egyptian Game

SH19724English colonists introduced squash to Egypt in the late 19th century, and in the 1930s Egyptian Amr Bey became the game’s first international star, holding the British Open title from 1933 to 1938.

It wasn’t until the 1990s, though, that Egypt as a nation really began to establish itself as a squash powerhouse. Much of the credit goes to President Hosni Mubarak, an avid player who regularly promoted the game during his 30 years in power.

SH19715In the late ‘90s a charismatic young player named Ahmed Barada became the most successful Egyptian since Bey, rising to #2 in the rankings and reaching the World Open finals. He was the country’s biggest sports celebrity when, in 2000, he was assaulted outside his home. An unknown assailant stabbed him twice in the back, inflicting injuries that effectively ended his squash career at the age of 22.

Barada was at the forefront of Egypt’s rise to world squash preeminence, and he has served as an idol for younger generations of players. In 1994 he was the first Egyptian ever to win the World Junior Championship. The title has been contested 13 times since then, and 10 of the 13 winners have been from Egypt.

In the current professional rankings, nine out of the top 10 players under the age of 25 are Egyptian, including Mohamed Elshorbagy, the world #1.

Egyptians in the 2015 World Championship

SH19727Along with Elshorbagy and Ashour (who are profiled here), Egypt’s representatives at this year’s World Championship in Bellevue will include a pair of Egyptian stars in the primes of their careers, and a small army of ambitious young players.

At age 36, Amr Shabana would have been the oldest player in the tournament draw, and also the most accomplished. He’s a four-time world champion, winning the title in 2003, 2005, 2007, and 2009, and was the #1-ranked player in the world for 33 consecutive months, from 2006 through 2008. Sadly Shabana announced his retirement from competitive squash last month, so will not feature in the Championship – not on court, at least.

SH19741Omar Mosaad is the most physically intimidating figure in professional squash, standing 6’4” and weighing a lean 200 pounds. He’s a classic example of the mixed blessing that size and strength are for squash players.

On the one hand, he can hammer the ball with incredible power, he has a long reach, and he’s a big obstacle for opponents to maneuver around. But his large frame makes him a touch slower than the smaller guys, especially when coming in and out of long lunges into the corners of the court—a disadvantage that can grow in significance as a match wears on.

SH19740Mosaad is 27 years old, an age where athletes are usually coming into their peak. He’s been lingering at the edge of greatness for the past five years, methodically climbing up the rankings, consistently beating players outside the top 10 but never managing to notch a victory against a top-five opponent. (The one exception is a win over Ramy Ashour this year at the Swedish Open, which came after Ashour sustained an injury.)

He has to be hoping that 2015-16 will be the season he breaks through with a win in a major tournament. He has a patient, professional demeanor on and off the court that can only be to his advantage in the quest.

SH19753Tarek Momen is Mosaad’s physical opposite, but in other respects they’re near duplicates. Momen is 27 years old and has seen his star slowly ascend over the past few years.

He’s small (5’9”, 145 pounds) and exceptionally fast, making him perfectly suited to the counterattacking game—which means that it’s very hard for opponents to hit shots he can’t retrieve, and he often turns retrievals into his own devastating attacks.

Momen may be squash’s coolest customer. He shows unflappable composure on court, keeping his head in circumstances where many players would be losing theirs.

His attitude iSH19743s calm, but his style of play is flashy. While he’s a great retriever, he’s aggressive—sometimes too aggressive—about putting pressure on his opponent through drop shots, boasts, and volleys.

He’s had some big wins, highlighted by triumphs over Mohamed Elshorbagy in the final of the 2013 Malaysian Open and English star James Willstrop in the semis of the 2014 Swedish Open. Increasing his patience and cutting down on errors will be crucial if he’s going to win tournaments on the biggest stages.

SH19730The cluster of young Egyptians populating the top 50 includes 22-year-old Marwan Elshorbagy, who despite having two world junior championships to his name is best known as Mohamed’s younger brother.

He’s not quite as athletic as Mohamed, but he’s been ranked as high as #12 in the world despite results that reflect the inconsistency of youth. He’s probably a year or two away yet from being a serious threat for a top title, but reached the final of the China Open, the first major event of the new season.

SH19735Karim Abdel Gawad, a 24-year-old who has established a place for himself in the top 20, has the most telling nickname on the tour—the Baby-Faced Assassin. He looks more like an MBA student than a world-class athlete, but he has the best hands of any player in his generation, enabling him to hit precise drop shots with remarkable nonchalance.

SH19732The young Egyptian with the most upside may be 21-year-old Fares Dessouki. Early in his career he’s shown the physical presence and maturity to battle toe-to-toe with his elders, earning wins over Karim Abdel Gawad, Marwan Elshorbagy, and higher-ranked veterans Mathieu Castagnet and Saurav Ghosal, while taking Mohamed Elshorbagy and Tarek Momen to five games.

SH19734Another 21-year-old who could have some success in the World Championships is Mazen Hesham, who’s distinguished by his youthful abandon. He loves to play high-risk, high-reward squash and is the most emotionally expressive member of his peer group.

SH19737Twenty-three-year-old Ali Farag chose the path less taken, attending Harvard and winning two College Squash Association championships while most of his fellow rising world-class juniors were devoting themselves exclusively to the game. After graduation he’s managed a swift ascent up the rankings that seems likely to continue in the coming years. He’s another brilliant Egyptian shot-maker with the kind of quick, fluid movement around the court that marks him as a natural.

That’s far from the end of the list – other Egyptians likely to feature in the main draw or the qualifying event include Mohamed Aboulghar, Mohamed Reda, Omar Abdel Meguid, Zahed MohamedAndrew Wagih, Karim Ali Fathi, Karim El Hammamy and more – all capable of producing significant upsets.

Matthew Lombardi

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